Britain’s Times has an article entitled “First baby in Britain designed cancer-free.” This is clearly eye catching (I found it via Drudge) and most certainly important, but contains a number of misconceptions and small inaccuracies. What basically happened is that a couple used in vitro fertilization (IVF) to fertilize a few eggs and then screen them to find one that had avoided inheriting the genetic mutation that the mother carries and could pass on to a certain number of her offspring. The baby wasn’t technically “designed” but rather “selected” for (or against) a specific trait. In addition, to say that the baby is “cancer-free” is also a misconception. While the baby would not inherit the specific mutation from the mother that was selected against, the baby is by no means immune from every other form of cancer and every other form of getting this specific type of eye cancer.
What makes this issue contentious is that it involves discarding un-used embryos, condemned by many religious conservatives, and could further be applied to selecting for other traits not considered as deleterious as cancer. The same screening techniques could be used to select for a specific sex. Would this be wrong if a couple has already had three boys and really wants a girl? What if this is their first child and they simply know that boys still have it easier?
Because the legislation is still so vague, both in the U.S. and Britain, it is often up to the individual doctor or hospital whether or not to take part in a procedure. This provides for the constant possibility of a legal circus (see Shiavo) and fortunately the increasing role of bioethics committees in the decision making process. I’m currently writing a paper on the history of the bioethics committee in American hospitals, and I’ll revisit this issue when it is complete.