23andMe describes its Inheritance Calculator as an engaging way for their clients to 'dip their toes into genetics' (1) providing an opportunity to explore the 'fun traits like eye colour and muscle performance' that their offspring might inherit.
In contrast, the patent granted in September 2013 allows this tool to be used in fertility treatment to assist in gamete donor selection (2). The patient's sequenced genome would be matched against the sequenced genomes of several donors enabling the patient to choose the donor that would produce the most desirable child.
These two uses are not mutually exclusive, and there is no practical reason why this fun tool should not also be used for the more serious purpose of helping patients undergoing fertility treatment to avoid donors with predispositions for serious illnesses. However, the Center for Genetics and Society has criticised this sort of use as being 'ethically and socially treacherous' because it 'amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce designer babies'.
Let us consider sperm donors for a moment. If I wanted to use donated sperm as part of fertility treatment, I would find a sperm bank and ask to look through the donors they have available. The London Sperm Bank categorises its donors by several phenotypic and environmental characteristics: race, eye colour, hair colour, height, skin tone, nationality, education and occupation.
If I were seeking a donor to give me a child that fitted best with my family, I would choose a donor with similar physical characteristics to those of my partner: six feet tall, dark hair, light skin tone, brown eyes. I might also seek a donor with a PhD so as to give my child the best chances in academic achievement as well.
Five minutes on the website, and I can find several donors that mostly match my specifications, although I might have to compromise on the PhD. All that the 23andMe patent allows me to do is use the genotype to make the same calculations and the same decision about a donor. Granted, it is probably slightly more accurate than using phenotype alone, but given the number of possible configurations of the genetic makeup of an embryo made from two sets of gametes, it is still unlikely to be a precise predictor of the child that eventuates from the fertility treatment.
What is the difference between the two approaches to choosing donors that makes the Inheritance Calculator more problematic than the categorisation by phenotypic characteristics already in use? Elsewhere I have argued that genetic information is endowed with a level of mysticism, with discussions about its appropriate use often imbued with a quasi-religious fervour (3). This genetic X-factor appears to have struck again. If we strip it down to the core concern, then we are talking about engineering babies.
It strikes me that using only the genotypic information will only give half the picture of the future potential baby. To get a full picture, we must also take into account the characteristics attributable to nurture, the educational level, the occupation, the dietary habits of the donor, for example, since these play a part in the makeup of the child.
If the parent knows of the child's academic potential it will affect the opportunities provided to the child. They might be encouraged to take extra maths tuition, rather than playing rugby. If this is the case, then the existing approach to choosing a sperm donor is of greater moral concern since it offers greater restrictions on the future child than the method proposed by the 23andMe patent.
The purpose of sperm donation is to create a child. If you have to choose a donor then the logical way to do it is with the eventual child in mind. Both of the approaches considered above are an attempt to replicate what occurs when a couple meet and choose to have children.
People choose their partners for all sorts of reasons: looks, intellect, athletic ability, or common interests. These choices may also indicate some attraction or 'chemistry' between the parties. What is 'chemistry', if not an indicator of a potential partner's desirable reproductive traits? If the proxies for 'chemistry' are morally problematic, the same must be said for chemistry itself.This is absurd. Unless we can find a way to differentiate the Inheritance Calculator from the factors one takes account of when choosing a mate, it is extremely difficult to argue convincingly that it is morally problematic, or 'socially treacherous' to use it. We have to blow away the fog of mysticism surrounding genetics. Only then will we be able to have a rational discussion about how to regulate its place in these sorts of decisions.