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Designer babies and assuming the worst

30 October 2000
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 81

Reproductive scientists must be used to it by now. They present a new development in human embryo screening to fellow scientists at a conference in a far away place and before they know it, the press back home have put it on the front page and branded it 'quality control' for babies.

But, contrary to the expectations of a Lancet journalist, the UK press weren't particularly outraged about news from Professor Joy Delhanty and Dr Dagan Wells that they have developed a technique for screening all the chromosomes in a human embryo at once. Most newspapers ran rather matter-of-fact stories on the research, focusing on its proposed application of improving IVF success rates by reducing the numbers of fatally flawed embryos being transferred to the patient.

Only the Daily Mail sensationalised the story by running the headline 'IVF test to give parents "perfect babies"' on its front page. Inside, the journalist had got hold of the wrong end of the stick and let her imagination run away with her. Discussing the new technique's possible use to detect Down's Syndrome in the early embryo, she failed to note that embryo screening in its present form, where is it used to test for one disorder at a time, is quite capable of looking for the presence of Down's Syndrome.

And so, the two critics quoted were a little off the mark. One was concerned that embryologists, rather than patients, would now be making decisions. But this has never been the case with current methods of embryo screening and there's no reason to assume it will be so with this new technique, if it is ever to become a clinical reality. The other critic suggested that embryos that could develop into children with meaningful lives despite their disability will now be discarded before pregnancy. But the new screening technique is designed to screen out embryos that will never survive beyond a few weeks. Thus the only criticisms of Delhanty and Wells' research, whether justified or not for current screening methods, rather missed the point.

The moral of the story is that those in favour of such techniques should not assume that the press will oppose their work and take more note of what journalists and commentators actually say. Sometimes, designer babies are mentioned more by those who think it a silly accusation, than by those who don't.

18 October 2021 - by Professor Darren Griffin 
A personal memoir and tribute to Professor Joy Delhanty. Mentor, scientist, friend...
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