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Special deliveries: Are designer babies arriving?

Will you soon be able to choose the hair and eye color of the child the stork is bringing you? An L.A. fertility clinic is advertising a controversial procedure to select physical traits, but one expert calls it “more hype than reality.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Imagine ordering a baby like dinner: “We’ll take the boy in the Greek-god model, but can you make him 6-foot-4 instead of 6 feet? And gimme the green eyes instead of the blue; ash-blond hair — a little curly, but not too much; olive complexion; 140 IQ; heavy on the fast-twitch muscles.”

Sound like science fiction? Maybe not: The news that a California fertility clinic is offering prospective parents the opportunity to improve the odds of having children with preselected hair, skin and eye color has renewed the debate over “designer babies.”

But Dr. Jamie Grifo, director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology at the NYU School of Medicine, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday in New York that the issue is overblown.

“I think this is more hype than reality,” Grifo said.

Sticker shock
Grifo is a pioneer in a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) that has been widely used to screen for genetic diseases for 17 years. The procedure involves taking a cell from an embryo a few days after fertilization and scanning the DNA for certain diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, Down syndrome and a predisposition for certain types of cancer. It can also be used to select the gender of a baby.

The California clinic is using the same technique to increase the chances of having a baby with a specified eye, hair or skin color.

Grifo said that surveys conducted by NYU show a high percentage of parents who would screen for mental retardation or genetic diseases, but few who want to determine physical appearance.

“Demand for that is not that high. Patients don’t do it when they find out what’s involved,” he told Vieira. “You have to go through IVF. It costs a lot of money. It doesn’t always work.”

Published reports put the cost of selecting for the likelihood of physical traits at $18,000, and because it has to be done through in vitro fertilization, the procedure often has to be repeated multiple times before a viable fetus develops.

Is ‘Gattaca’ here?The ability to choose a higher likelihood of certain physical traits is being advertised by the Fertility Institute, a California fertility clinic headed by Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, who was on the team of doctors that created the first so-called test-tube baby in the 1970s. Steinberg’s clinic claims a 100 percent success rate over the years in selecting the gender of nearly 1,000 babies.

But Steinberg doesn’t promise certainty with other traits, just an increased probability. “Can they say to me, ‘We would prefer to have blue eyes,’ and can we offer them an increased chance of blue eyes? Absolutely. Can we prefer curly hair? Absolutely,” he told NBC News.

The 1997 film “Gattaca” portrayed a world in which parents select all the traits of their children. That vision scares many lay people as well as medical ethicists.

Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society told NBC News that she fears Steinberg’s clinic is starting society “down a slippery slope … We do need some rules of the road. What kind of society are we working toward? I think we want to get away from prejudices based on the way people look.”

Grifo agreed that selecting for appearance is not a good idea. “I don’t think this is what we should be doing,” he said. “I don’t think patients really want this.”

He also said that being able to select for such traits as intelligence and athletic ability is far in the future, because those traits involve combinations of genes as well as other factors.

“The science is kind of there,” Grifo told Vieira. “You can pick the possibility that you have a higher chance of having a blue-eyed, blond-haired baby. But things like intelligence, sports [and] athletic ability, those genes we don’t know. We don’t know how to select for them, and I don’t think we’ll be able to select for them.”

He also pointed out that when his group did the first PGD procedure in the 1990s, critics began warning about designer babies. “In 17 years, it hasn’t happened. Yes, there is some gender selection going on. Most clinics will only do that for couples who want to balance their family; they have two girls, they want a boy,” he said.

Health vs. trivia
NYU’s surveys have convinced him there simply isn’t a great demand for the services Steinberg is offering.

“Who wants this?” Grifo asked. “I don’t want this for my child. Patients tell me that. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of people running to do this.”

Still, if it becomes a problem, Grifo added, “I think people can stop it.” But he said that would be a decision for lawmakers.

Grifo also cautioned that the hype over Steinberg’s claims should not obscure the suffering and pain that PGD has helped to eliminate for thousands of parents.

“Imagine having a child die of a serious illness ... and then knowing that you have a 25 to 50 percent risk of having another baby with that serious illness,” Grifo told Vieira. “If you’re that couple, you want this technology. You want to have a healthy baby. You don’t want to experience that again. This technology allows these couples to have a healthy baby. That’s a great thing.”

He concluded: “It would be a shame for these people to be left out because of the trivial use of the technology.”