A 'designer baby' hit the headlines in the UK last week, even though the child in question has not yet been conceived, let alone born. It's future brother, three-year old Zain Hashmi has a rare blood disorder, thalassaemia, which can only be cured with a bone marrow transplant from a tissue-matched donor. Last week, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority made a decision that could save his life - they gave the Hashmis and IVF unit head Dr Simon Fishel permission to use PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) to screen embryos to find one that is a genetic match for Zain.
If they are successful, blood from the newborn baby's umbilical cord will be used to try and cure Zain's condition. The story has provoked the usual cries of 'designer baby' in some quarters, with fears that the ruling will open the doors to parents wanting babies with a shopping list of desired characteristics. Others object to the idea that a child may only be wanted for its life-saving blood, and not for itself. But quite apart from the fact that people plan to have babies for many reasons, and that a great many more babies are not planned at all, there is no evidence to suggest that the Hashmis will not love and cherish their new baby.
The Hashmis are trying for another child who is not only free from the serious disease that affects their son, but who may also save his life. Like any loving parents they are doing their utmost to try and ensure their child lives a long and healthy life. Those who say their decision will lead to parents 'designing' their children are trivialising the Hashmis situation, and that of other couples who have requested similar treatment. PGD for tissue matching is simply a new technique to help couples have healthy children who may also help save the lives of seriously ill siblings. As with IVF before it, although PGD technology is now available, it is only ever likely to be used by those families who have no other choices.
As one commentator pointed out last week, 'parents, by and large, are not Nazis' and people should be free to benefit from new reproductive technologies. The procedure has a relatively low success rate - the Hashmis have only a one in 16 chance of finding a suitable embryo - but it is the only option available to them at present. Like any other family affected by an incurable illness, enduring endless hospital trips and trying any new treatment that might alleviate the suffering of a loved one, the Hashmis deserve our support and admiration rather than condemnation.