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January 23, 2012

Only 34 years ago the first "test tube baby" was born. Things have since come a long way. Scientists have developed preimplantation genetic diagnosis which, combined with the mapping of human genome, has set the stage for the possible creation of designer babies.

Those involved in the assisted reproduction industry say designing your own baby to be as smart as Aristotle and athletic enough to be a pro football quarterback is not technically possible. The vast majority also say they won't select embryos based on cosmetic traits, such as ensuring your baby is blond, blue-eyed and beautiful. What they want to do is to prevent diseases and health conditions that create suffering.

Even within those parameters, serious ethical concerns exist. The first concern is the destruction of the unwanted embryos from the in vitro process - the human rejects of the technology of procreation. People who would never consider abortion may not have the same compunction about destroying embryos.

Another concern is that babies are being conceived through an industrial process, not out of love. We do not yet know how such decisions will affect the family's home life; the process is still too new to have tracked the results.

But can a child not be affected by learning that he or she was chosen for birth to meet someone else's specifications? Can the child not be affected by learning that he or she was the "winner" in a life-or-death contest involving several other embryos?

How will the parents' upbringing of the winning candidate(s) be affected by a decision that by its very nature treats people as things?

Carolyn Abraham's article on "Unnatural selection" in the Jan. 7 Globe and Mail tells how in vitro fertilization is now being used by a growing number of parents who are fertile, but who opt for IVF to have their embryos screened for a long list of genetic conditions.

Today, many people have a strong aversion to IVF and genetic manipulation. But we are still in the early stages of the moral legitimization of this process. Experience with other societal changes, such as artificial contraception and same-sex marriage, shows that over time, the moral resistance of the population wears down.

As well, the technology is rapidly developing in this area. In 34 years, science has come a long way. How far will it go in 100 or 200 years?

Given that the Supreme Court has struck down most federal regulations on reproductive technologies and that the provinces have failed to implement their own laws, the legislative vacuum gives ample room for entrepreneurs to find ways to maximize profits.

We have already entered a cold new world of eugenics. The main question for the future is how far it will be allowed to develop and what effects will it wreak on society.