The presumption of parental choice in genetics

In various forms, I’ve been talking about genetic modification and testing of children for years. As most of you know my older son was whole-genome sequenced before he was born. This was in large part scientific activism. I wanted to show people it could be done, and it’s not scary. Genes are not destiny, they’re information.

In the current year of 2017 we’ve gotten much further than when I first began talking about this sort of stuff. The Washington Post and Stat have two articles on the topic that are relevant, Discounts, guarantees and the search for ‘good’ genes: The booming fertility business and A baby with a disease gene or no baby at all: Genetic testing of embryos creates an ethical morass.

I’m prompted to comment on them for two reasons. A simple one is that Michael Brendan Doughtery wondered if the recourse to “super-male” sperm donors would lead to inadvertent consanguineous marriage. I doubt the math works out there. There are tens of millions of children. Even with 1,000 sperm donors genetic diversity would mostly be retained, and you can find plenty of partners. And of course in the near future with ubiquitous genetic testing, most individuals will immediately detect consanguinuity. This is not a problem practically.

A second, broader issue, is in regards to genetic testing and sperm donation I do not believe we should treat parents who make recourse to these technologies any differently from parents (like myself) who can have children without assistance. Most humans make choices on characteristics of their spouses, and those choices aggregate into assortative mating. To me, this is a difference of degree, not kind, from selecting sperm donors. It simply seems creepy because of the technological aspect. The impulses are the exact same.

I do understand that some people have religious, ethical, and normative objections to these new technologies. Personally, I disagree with this viewpoint, but I think it is healthy for us to have the debate openly and candidly.

For example, a few years ago Radiolab had an episode where a gay Israeli couple went looking for egg donors. More specifically they wanted eggs from someone who was white. Obviously, I don’t prioritize my children looking like me that much even though they are biologically mine, so I have a hard time relating to fixating on this issue (my wife and I discussed this topic and I didn’t care too much whether the kids looked like dad, though other people on playgrounds seem to care way too much for my taste). But at the end of the day, it is a choice. And, it is the same choice that the vast majority of humans make by marrying and having children with people of the same race. In multiracial societies like the United States of America, this choice is explicit and implicit in terms of revealed preferences. People want kids to be the same race as themselves. They want to see themselves physically. The Radiolab episode simply exposed what generally occurs on the down-low.

Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the expense and artifice of assisted reproduction. Perhaps it violates our values. This is reasonable. These are issues and debates we need to hash out. But ultimately many of the same issues apply to assisted reproduction and genetic selection as do with “natural” or unassisted parenthood. I think it is important not to put parents who need assistance to a higher standard than those who don’t.

Addendum: I think the argument is ultimately somewhat low stakes because parents who really want a specific child and don’t want to adopt will spend as much as needed to get what they want. And if these technologies were banned in the United States people would just go abroad for the duration of the pregnancy.