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Designer baby fears grow

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PHOTO: IVF babble


*New test that can predict IVF embryos’ risk of having low IQ slammed by experts
*Critics raise red alert sex test could fuel rise in sex-selection abortions, birth defects

In vitro fertilisation (IVF) clinics may soon use a controversial screening technique to get rid of embryos, which are likely to grow up with low Intelligence Quotients (IQs).A company in the United States (U.S.) offering tests, which can pick out ‘mental disabilities’ – and, in theory, predict intelligence – has confirmed it is in talks with fertility clinics.

The news has stoked fears about a rise in designer babies, which could be created by parents wanting to erase undesirable traits from their children.

Experts say it is ‘repugnant’ to think about terminating embryos because they are expected to have lower than average intelligence. Genomic Prediction, based in New Jersey, can now offer tests to calculate the risk of complex conditions like heart disease, the New Scientist reports.

This type of testing is more complicated than current tests for Down’s syndrome, for example, because numerous genes determine the risk.In comparison, the current test for Down’s syndrome is based on Deoxy ribonucleic Acid (DNA)/ genetic material in a single location. Genomic Prediction’s test analyse a larger portion of DNA.

This is because the risk of conditions such as heart disease is determined by larger parts of their DNA, which are difficult to measure.And whether or not they will have low intelligence could be predicted in the same way, the firm claims. The tests have not been used yet.

While the company says it will only test embryos to find those at a high risk of serious medical conditions – like breast cancer, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease – it expects people to one day want IQ predictions.“I think people are going to demand that,” said Genomic Prediction’s co-founder, Stephen Hsu. “If we don’t do it, some other company will.”

Genetic testing before birth began as a way to avoid children being born with deadly disabilities, but could one day allow parents to choose their babies’ sex, appearance and intelligence level.

Genomic Prediction’s new test raises huge ethical dilemmas and concerns about ‘playing God’, which have been simmering for years. For example, scientists revealed in April they could determine the sex of a baby from a pin-prick test just eight weeks into a pregnancy.
Scientists sparked controversy in April after creating a pin-prick test that can determine the gender of a baby after just eight weeks of pregnancy.

There were concerns the test could trigger a rise in sex-selective abortions, especially in countries like India and China where families desire boys over girls for cultural reasons.A government report in India found that the country has 63 million fewer women then it should because families choose to abort their female babies.

The situation is much the same in China, where men outnumber women by 34 million – significantly more than the entire population of Australia. It is feared the new pin-prick test could fuel a ‘genocide’ of female babies in India and China as parents are given more time than previously to make a decision on whether to abort their babies.

Experts at the time worried there may be a rise in sex-selective abortions in countries such as China and India where cultures would rather have baby boys.And there have been concerns that allowing parents to control some aspects of their child could be a slippery slope towards parents one day ruling out traits which don’t affect the child’s health, like hair or eye colour.

Campaigners against screening for Down’s syndrome already argue an inclusive society should not be trying to erase people with disabilities.Genomic Predictions said it wouldn’t give parents enough information to get rid of embryos based on their predicted intelligence level.

It said the testing is not accurate enough to actually predict intelligence, but could point out potential outliers – those whose IQ is likely to be 25 points below average (90-110) – and people with mental disabilities.Prof. Peter Visscher, from the University of Queensland, said the idea of using the test to select babies with high IQs is “repugnant”.

The testing method Genomic Prediction uses analyses DNA to produce a polygenic risk score, determining how likely they are to get certain diseases.Screening for polygenic conditions can already be done on adults, but Genomic Prediction is set to be the first company to use them on unborn children.

But there are concerns the genes for desirable traits – like high intelligence – may also cause unwanted effects, which scientists don’t know about.For example, past research has linked those genes to a higher risk of having autism.


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