The UK's Human Genetics Commission (HGC) has issued a report that says advances in the techniques that can be used by families at risk of passing on genetic diseases to their children are to be welcomed, but also need careful monitoring. The report, called 'Making Babies: reproductive decisions and genetic technologies', followed the work of a working group established in June 2003, co-chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, chair of the HGC, and Professor Martin Richards, from Cambridge University.
The report also concludes that we should be less worried about the spectre of 'designer babies'. It says that it is unlikely that the creation of designer babies is likely to become feasible, because the technologies for parents to be able to select embryos for appearance, intelligence, or sporting abilities, 'are not on the horizon'. The report acknowledges that PGD - where a single cell is removed from an early-stage embryo and tested for genetic disease - is at an early stage and concludes that it is simply 'not likely' that this could be the beginning of a 'slippery slope'. 'There's a great deal of hyperventilating about this in the media - and it's unreal', said Baroness Kennedy, adding that the HGC 'heard repeatedly from scientists debunking the idea'. Professor Richards agreed, saying that the idea that we could select an embryo that would become 'a beautiful blonde with a brilliant academic record' is 'pie in the sky'.
The HGC report generally endorses the new reproductive technologies that are already available, particularly those that extend the choices available to families at risk of passing on genetic diseases. But the report also evidences a concern that there should be more research and follow-up into any potential long-term consequences of using these technologies, and calls for a change in the law to relax the confidentiality rules in this area. As well as this, it calls for research into the welfare of so-called 'saviour siblings', children selected through embryo testing to be born with a view to providing umbilical cord stem cell or bone marrow matches for existing sick siblings.
The HGC also calls for couples to be offered clear and unequivocal advice so that they do not feel pressured into undergoing prenatal screening tests - such as those that aim to detect Down syndrome, now offered to every pregnant woman in the UK. 'For real choice to exist, people must be supported regardless of their decision to embark on a screening programme and any subsequent actions they may take', says the report.
In a press statement, Baroness Kennedy said that 'with the accelerating pace of genetic research, the choices open to couples experiencing fertility problems or families with a history of genetic illnesses are now considerable and increasing'. But she added that these new possibilities bring with them new concerns. 'We have to balance the need to assure reproductive autonomy - the rights of parents to make their own decisions - with the welfare of the child and the wider interests of society', she said.