British Columbia

Designer babies: new prenatal test raises ethical concerns

Before a simple blood test could one day determine the entire genome of a fetus, a legal expert says the ethics of what the tests could reveal need to be discussed.

Simple blood test could determine entire genome of unborn child

Non-invasive prenatal testing can reveal the sex of a fetus, which has sparked debate about banning sex-based abortions. (iStock)

Advances in prenatal testing aren't going to yield "designer babies" quite yet, but the genetic tests are already raising some ethical concerns about the information they could reveal, says one expert.

Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law and science policy at the University of Alberta, will be speaking about the ethics of non-invasive prenatal testing at a conference on obstetrics and gynaecology in Vancouver on Wednesday.

The emerging health technology, which is mostly being used prior to amniotic fluid testing, allows parents to screen the entire genome of their fetus — even their sex — through a simple blood test from the pregnant woman.

"That's really remarkable," says Caulfield. "You would have all the genetic information of this unborn individual at your fingerprints — now that's theoretically."

Currently the tests provide initial screening for genetic abnormalities, such as Down Syndrome, he says, and he doesn't expect it to be used to cultivate the next Einstein, yet.

"Most traits like intelligence and athletic ability, for example, are very complex traits," he notes. "We're not going to simply select for them, but I think it invites a discussion about this kind of thing."

The debate

But the fact the test can reveal the sex of a fetus has sparked another debate after medical studies revealed higher male-to-female birth ratios in some communities in Canada.

He says, while there have been calls for bans on abortions based on sex, he cautions the ethics of the issue are complicated by other considerations.

"Can you really restrict the access women have to information about themselves, because that is really what it would be," he asks.

"Are health care providers going to interrogate women ... to find out why they're having an abortion, which is a very complex and tough decision?"

Caulfield predicts discussion about the issue won't be fade away soon and discussion is a positive thing.

"This is a technology that is here to stay ... so we need to get a handle on it."

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Ethics of new prenatal testing