Embryo screening sparks controversy over ‘designer babies’

Provincial governments in Canada are beginning to recognize in-vitro fertilization treatments as a necessary health cost.

Essentially, IVF is the test-tube fertilization of an ovum with a sperm. The resulting embryo is then implanted into the mother’s or surrogate’s uterus. The first successful birth of a “test-tube baby” was in 1978. The physiologist who developed the treatment, Robert G. Edwards, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2010.

Last August, Quebec became the first province to put nearly the full cost of IVF on the public health care bill. The government funds up to three treatments, and has a refundable tax credit for up to 50 per cent of your total IVF cost.

Manitoba followed Quebec’s lead, offering a tax credit for up to 40 per cent of treatment expenses.

Since 1994, Ontario has covered IVF treatments, but only for women with the extremely rare condition of having two fully blocked Fallopian tubes.

Dr. Santiago Munne, who developed the first pre-implantation genetic test for Down’s Syndrome and a host of other chromosomal abnormalities, is well aware of the potential for Quebec — and now Manitoba — to take off into the fertility treatment industry.

Munne is the founder and president of Reprogenetics, a company that offers pre-implantation

genetic diagnosis, or PGD, to couples undergoing IVF treatments.

He has been considering opening Reprogenetics labs in Montreal and Toronto as funding to treat infertility becomes more available to Canadians, and aided conception becomes more popular.

What Reprogenetics does is embryo screening. Right before implantation, scientists assess the genetic makeup of the embryos, discarding those deemed unsuitable. The screenings cost about $2,500 and results are back in only a few hours.

The obvious application of this is screening for genetic disorders. But, it raises some ethical concerns once one begins to screen embryos for specific traits and physical characteristics.

As with every other issue surrounding reproductive rights, people are questioning how much control humans ought to have in the pairing of sex cells. PGD has been associated with “liberal eugenics” — loaded terminology that invokes the image of hopeful parents selecting desired characteristics for their progeny out of a catalogue.

Is it possible that embryo screeners will discard not only specimens with genetic defects, but also those with the gene for freckles or brown hair? What characteristics define an “unsuitable embryo?”

Dr. Roger Pierson, the director for the Reproductive Biology Research Unit at the University of Saskatchewan, thinks that this question has yet to be seriously addressed. He told the Montreal Gazette that “we desperately need a national think-tank on how we’re going to accept or reject or implement the changes that are coming.”

He pointed out that industry leaders are still trying to ratify the old policies surrounding sperm donors, never mind the issues at the forefront of reproductive technology. He also expressed concern about venturing into the age of “designer babies.”

Munne was quick to dismiss the concerns, saying, “I don’t have any problem with perfect babies.”

Perfection is a concept explored by almost every field of study, but the word is not often applied to humans. Aesthetic and physiological perfection are so highly subjective, it seems ludicrous to suggest that a “perfect baby” could even exist.

But Munne said the technology is not used solely for aesthetics. It benefits couples who suffer from recurrent pregnancy loss, meaning one miscarriage after another.

“These couples produce a lot of chromosomally abnormal embryos,” he said.

He also explained the technology can be narrowed in to focus on a specific hereditary gene disorder that is already known in a couple.

“If we know the mutation,” Munne said, “we can screen for it.”

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Graphic: Brianna Whitmore/The Sheaf