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US IVF clinic reverses decision to offer embryo tests for eye and hair colour

8 March 2009
Appeared in BioNews 498

A US clinic, which offered to help prospective parents choose their IVF offspring on the basis of certain traits of physical appearance, has suspended its planned introduction of this service due to the criticism it received. A statement on the centre's website said: 'we remain sensitive to public perception and feel that any benefit the diagnostic studies may offer are far outweighed by the apparent negative societal impacts involved'.

The LA Fertility Institute, led by Dr Jeff Steinberg, a pioneer of IVF techniques in the 1970s, claimed a baby selected by criteria such as hair and eye colour would be born within the next year. They are using a technique called PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis). A cell is taken from the embryo at a very early stage and subjected to genetic analysis to determine whether embryo has the desired characteristics. If so, the selected embryos are returned to the womb and the other embryos are discarded. The screening process costs 18,500 dollars.

The clinic's website said that that 'not all patients will qualify for these tests and we make NO guarantees as to ''perfect prediction'' of things such as eye colour or hair colour'. Dr Steinberg himself claimed they could pick babies based on sex with 100 per cent accuracy, and eye colour with 80 per cent accuracy. Following the public outcry to the plans, however, PGD will only be offered by the clinic for disorders of pigmentation such as albinism, and not for selecting specific eye and hair pigment colours.

Other fertility experts have condemned the clinic for their claims, saying it is detracting from the use of PGD for preventing serious genetic diseases. Dr Gillian Lockwood, a member of the UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' ethics committee, said: 'If it gets to the point where we can decide which gene or combination of genes are responsible for blue eyes or blonde hair, what are you going to do with all those other embryos that turn out like me to be ginger with green eyes'? She warned against 'turning babies into commodities that you buy off the shelf'.

Dr Steinberg dismissed such worries, saying that 'I would not say this is a dangerous road. It's an uncharted road'.

Selecting embryos on any basis other than for preventing genetic diseases is currently illegal in the UK.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Designer baby row over US clinic
BBC News Online |  2 March 2009
Fertility Doctor Withdraws Designer Baby Offer
Medical News Today |  4 March 2009
Pick a color, any color
San Francisco Chronicle |  6 March 2009
Update: Fertility Doc Puts 'Designer Baby' Offer On Hold
AHN |  4 March 2009
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