New Zealanders should have an open discussion about the
idea of parents choosing some of their children's likely
physical traits before undergoing fertility treatment,
Associate Prof Colin Gavaghan says.
An international controversy about ''designer babies'' was
sparked by a patent recently granted to a direct-to-consumer
genetics company in the United States.
The patent on a method designed to enable prospective parents
to choose some of their children's traits before undergoing
fertility treatment was alarming many ethicists and genetics
researchers, the New Zealand Science Media Centre noted in a
The patent, granted to the US genetics company 23andMe laid
claim to a broad genetic analysis tool for allowing parents
to select for specific traits in their offspring, such as
lack of specific genetic diseases, or eye colour.
''The method allows sperm and eggs to be selected that are
most likely to produce traits chosen by the parents, such as
eye colour or athleticism, and also allows screening out of
sperm and eggs likely to lead to genetic disease,'' the media
Prof Gavaghan, director of the New Zealand Law Foundation
Centre for Emerging Technologies at the Otago Faculty of Law,
emphasised the patented method could not guarantee any
desired physical attributes would be present in the
subsequent child but just increase their likelihood.
At some stage in the future, the technology was likely to
improve and could eventually become available overseas.
The issue of parents wanting to select some of their
children's physical attributes was ''a big question''.
''We probably should talk about it,'' he said in an
A good discussion, without ''emoting'', would clarify any
community concerns about parents helping their children up
the ladder by seeking to select some of their
The US genetics firm said it did not intend to launch a
commercial service based on its patent.
However, Prof Gavaghan suspected the firm was carefully
assessing the public reaction to its move.
In his book Defending the Genetic Supermarket, Prof
Gavaghan had argued prospective parents should ''on the
whole, be allowed to make these sorts of choices if they
want; or at least, we should be able to offer them a pretty
good reason if we are to ban them from doing so''.
But in any case he believed the patent process was not ''the
best way to regulate'' such technology and that the
''democratic process'' should be involved if there were
''serious moral objections to these sorts of choices''.
The Human Assisted Reproduction Act in New Zealand, and its
regulatory system limited the choices parents could make and
selecting the sex of children was illegal, he said.
Having a ''transparent decision made by democratically
accountable MPs'' was a better way of dealing with such
decisions than entrusting them to a patents assessment
committee, he said.