Friday, November 12, 2004

Eugenics-Like Baby-Designing Proposed

Couples may get chance to design the 'ideal' IVF baby
By Alexandra Frean, Social Affairs Correspondent

COUPLES will be able to choose donated sperm or eggs to create their designer child, under proposals published by the fertility watchdog.

Characteristics such as height, eye colour and intelligence could be selected if women undergoing fertility treatment are given more freedom to pick the donated sperm, egg or embryo.

The controversial proposals are part of a public consultation launched yesterday by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). But critics are concerned that the proposal could lead to more couples demanding “designer” babies and to parents having unrealistic expectations of the resulting children — a point accepted by the authority in its consultation document.

The practice of screening donors for desirable characteristics is widespread in the US, where couples can pay up to $25,000 to secure the right type of donor. In America, donors are routinely screened according for high intelligence, family medical history and physical traits such as height, weight and eye, skin and hair colours.

The British fertility watchdog insisted, however, that its proposals were aimed at ensuring that as many couples as possible receive treatment.

At present its guidelines state that clinics should offer donated sperm, eggs or embryos from donors who are a close physical match to the patients.

But, with 90 per cent of clinics reporting a shortage of donors, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make close matches, particularly for couples from minority ethnic groups, and waiting lists for treatment are stretching to two years. Experts expect the situation to get worse next April, when donors lose their right to anonymity.

“We shouldn’t be preventing someone from having treatment because they don’t have the physical characteristics that match the donors,” an HFEA spokeswoman said.

But Olivia Montuschi from the Donor Conception Network, which represents families of children conceived after sperm or egg donations, insisted that it was vital for children to share physical characteristics with their parents.

“If a child is significantly different in any way, either in physical characteristics or intellectual attainment, then it can make it harder for them to feel part of that family,” she said.

Elizabeth Wincott, chairman and founder of the Project Group on Assisted Reproduction, also opposed widening the scope for selection of donors. “As far as possible, selection should mirror the natural processes that occur in normal conception, except for specific medical reasons,” she said.

Suzi Leather, chair of the fertilisation authority, agreed that relaxing the rules on matching donors with patients could lead to a child who looked so different from the rest of the family that they had difficulty fitting in. “This is particularly important for families that do not want their donor conceived child to stand out,” she said, but she felt that might not be important to some parents — for example a single woman having treatment.

The authority is also considering relaxing the restrictions on the import of sperm, eggs and embryos from overseas to deal with the shortage of donors in Britain. A further proposal is to change the rules to allow payments. These could range from £50 for sperm donors to £1,000 for egg donors.

The consultation is part of its Sperm Egg and Embryo Donation Review, which has been prompted by plans to remove the anonymity of donors and the introduction of new EU rules on human tissue and cells.

More than 37,000 children have been born in Britain as a result of people donating sperm, eggs and embryos, but changes in the law and in public attitudes, meant a review of the rules on treatment was needed, Ms Leather said.

Proposals to pay donors were not intended to act as an inducement but to reflect the inconvenience experienced and the time donors sacrificed. At present sperm donors are paid £15 plus “reasonable expenses”. If that were increased, they could receive up to £2,500 since they are allowed to donate up to 50 times in a six-month period.

Payments for egg donors would be higher to reflect the increased inconvenience and the invasive nature of the procedure. Some clinics have suggested payment up to £1,000, while most favoured a figure between £300 and £500.

The payments would apply only to donations made in Britain. At present the only country from which Britain imports gametes is Denmark, which has a far better supply.

The consultation closes on February 4 next year.

PERFECT DONORS

Donors in the US are screened for the following attributes:

Intelligence, measured by school and university records
Family medical history
Mental state
Personal profiles and family backgrounds.
Physical traits — height, eye, skin and hair colour, weight.