23andMe describes its Inheritance Calculator as an
engaging way for their clients to 'dip their toes into genetics' (1) providing
an opportunity to explore the 'fun traits like eye colour and muscle
performance' that their offspring might inherit.
In contrast, the patent granted in September 2013 allows this
tool to be used in fertility treatment to assist in gamete donor selection (2).
The patient's sequenced genome would be matched against the sequenced genomes
of several donors enabling the patient to choose the donor that would produce
the most desirable child.
These two uses are not mutually exclusive, and there is no
practical reason why this fun tool should not also be used for the more serious
purpose of helping patients undergoing fertility treatment to avoid donors with
predispositions for serious illnesses. However, the Center for Genetics and Society has criticised this sort of use as being 'ethically and socially treacherous'
because it 'amounts to shopping for designer donors in an effort to produce
Let us consider sperm donors for a moment. If I wanted to use
donated sperm as part of fertility treatment, I would find a sperm bank and ask
to look through the donors they have available. The London Sperm Bank categorises its donors by several
phenotypic and environmental characteristics: race, eye colour, hair colour, height, skin tone, nationality, education
If I were seeking a donor to give me a child that fitted best
with my family, I would choose a donor with similar physical characteristics to
those of my partner: six feet tall, dark hair, light skin tone, brown eyes. I
might also seek a donor with a PhD so as to give my child the best chances in
academic achievement as well.
Five minutes on the website, and I can find several donors
that mostly match my specifications, although I might have to compromise on the
PhD. All that the 23andMe patent allows me to do is use the genotype to make
the same calculations and the same decision about a donor. Granted, it is probably
slightly more accurate than using phenotype alone, but given the number of
possible configurations of the genetic makeup of an embryo made from two
sets of gametes, it is still unlikely to be a precise predictor of the child that
eventuates from the fertility treatment.
What is the difference between the two approaches to choosing
donors that makes the Inheritance Calculator more problematic than the
categorisation by phenotypic characteristics already in use? Elsewhere I have
argued that genetic information is endowed with a level of mysticism, with
discussions about its appropriate use often imbued with a quasi-religious
fervour (3). This genetic X-factor appears to have struck again. If we strip it
down to the core concern, then we are talking about engineering babies.
It strikes me that using only the genotypic information will
only give half the picture of the future potential baby. To get a full picture,
we must also take into account the characteristics attributable to nurture, the
educational level, the occupation, the dietary habits of the donor, for
example, since these play a part in the makeup of the child.
If the parent
knows of the child's academic potential it will affect the opportunities
provided to the child. They might be encouraged to take extra maths tuition,
rather than playing rugby. If this is the case, then the existing approach to
choosing a sperm donor is of greater moral concern since it offers greater
restrictions on the future child than the method proposed by the 23andMe
The purpose of sperm donation is to create a child. If you
have to choose a donor then the logical way to do it is with the eventual child
in mind. Both of the approaches considered above are an attempt to replicate
what occurs when a couple meet and choose to have children.
People choose their partners for all sorts of reasons: looks,
intellect, athletic ability, or common interests. These choices may also
indicate some attraction or 'chemistry' between the parties. What is 'chemistry',
if not an indicator of a potential partner's desirable reproductive traits? If
the proxies for 'chemistry' are morally problematic, the same must be said for
This is absurd. Unless we can find a way to
differentiate the Inheritance Calculator from the factors one takes account of
when choosing a mate, it is extremely difficult to argue convincingly that it
is morally problematic, or 'socially treacherous' to use it. We have to blow
away the fog of mysticism surrounding genetics. Only then will we be able to
have a rational discussion about how to regulate its place in these sorts of