Build-a-Baby gets patented by 23andMe. Cue outrage.
A slightly unsavory patent emerged into the light today. Human genomics startup 23andMe patented a 'calculator' to allow people to pick and choose traits of their future child. You could say whether you want a kid with blue eyes or green eyes, a long lifespan, or less risk of colorectal cancer. Or more risk of colorectal cancer, if that's what you're into. The system then runs the database of your genes against others, to recommend a mating match that would be likely to produce a child with said traits. The patent was filed in December of 2008, but just went public.
This type of technology is nothing new. There's a growing trend of parents who are going to fertility clinics to help with sex selection. Eggs can be fertilized with sperm in a lab, and XX or XY embryos identified under a microscope. It's like a recipe. Doctors then implant the resulting boy or girl embryo into a uterus (the oven, obv.) where it grows into a baby. People in parts of China or India would go crazy over this technology. They'd never have to have a girl again. ::Shudder::
23andMe's take on genetic selection is less creepy than regulated gendercide. It focuses on features like hair color and the risk of getting certain diseases. Not as threatening as, say, wiping out women because they're more expensive to raise.
Plus, 23andMe's system wouldn't come with a 100 percent guarantee, the way sex selection does. There's always room for chance (and error) in the mashup between genomes.
But despite all that, people are still really weirded out by the baby calculator. The Center for Genetics and Society, a non-profit organization that lobbies for responsible use of new reproductive technology, even sent out a press release asking 23andMe to "Disavow 'Designer Babies.'"
23andMe's calculator is essentially a Build-a-Baby, the type of technology people have never been totally comfortable with. In fact, in the UK and Canada prospective parents have been banned from building their babies. Instead, they're told to try "folklore methods, such as eating more meat if you want a boy!" What?
I'll 'fess up...I don't get what the big deal is. Granted, Build-a-Baby technology creeps me out when it comes to gender, because the societal implications are worrisome. But it makes more sense when applied to appearance and disease risk.
The proposed 23andMe calculator is akin to asking someone to be your baby daddy (or mommy) because you think the kids you'd have with them would be cute. That's a stupid reason to raise a child with someone, but it's not morally reprehensible. In the TV show Parks and Recreation, the perpetually single Ann Perkins asks the manic and muscled Chris Traegar to make a baby with her. They're not dating, but she chose him out of other possible baby daddy choices because of his looks (hot), health (A+), and ambition (intense). She wants those traits passed onto her kid.
Someone who picks an egg or sperm donor does the same thing, selecting based on a donor's education, race, health, and other available information. The only difference with the 23andMe calculator is that it makes such calculated guesses a little more accurate.
On the other end of the spectrum from hair and eye color, the 23andMe technology would theoretically help you limit the chances of your child having health complications. At the end of the day, one less person with cancer is a better world.
Anyways, whether the calculator abhors you or intrigues you, 23andMe didn't want to go anywhere near that hornet's nest. It's denying upside down and sideways that it has any intention of implementing the technology.
It patented the system just in case. Just in case what? The not-so-far-distant future where we engineer the gender of our babies? Well that's already happening. 23andMe is probably just waiting for the cultural tides to turn and support their Build-a-Baby plans.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia]