We know more about human genetics now than ever before. Over the past 20 years there has been great progress in our ability to understand the role of genetics in both health and disease. But does this understanding come with a cost? Where should we, as a society, place limits on the use of this powerful information that is contained in every human cell? It is especially important to ask these questions in the field of reproductive sciences.

Did You Know? The world's first IVF baby was born at Oldham General Hospital in England on July 25, 1978.

The development of a medical treatment called in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the late 1970s made it possible for thousands of women with reproductive issues to get pregnant (by joining the egg and sperm in a laboratory dish). This was considered a major milestone in human history.

Later, development of a process known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) made it possible to screen for genetic defects in the fertilized embryos obtained using IVF treatment.

Did You Know? PGD was first used in 1989 to select female embryos for a couple who were at risk of transmitting a severe mental disorder that only affected males.

While considered great scientific accomplishments, IVF and PGD have both been surrounded by some controversy. Drawing the line between what is “right” and “wrong” when using these powerful technologies has been quite challenging. On the one hand, some individuals argue that manipulating reproduction (with the help of science) is immoral. Others consider these scientific advances to be miraculous opportunities for couples with fertility issues to still have families of their own.

The debate over manipulated (or assisted) reproduction has led to special laws being created in some countries. In Canada, for instance, it is illegal to use PGD for identifying the sex of an embryo unless it’s to prevent or treat a serious sex-related medical disorder. Some may argue, however, that these laws are not strict enough.

Did You Know? Infertility is experienced by nearly 1 in 10 couples in Canada who are of reproductive age.

The really difficult questions start to arise when we look to the future. As we gain a greater understanding of our genetics, our ability to identify favorable genes and select for these will increase. It will then become even more important to have laws that prevent PGD from being used to create so-called designer babies. For example, if a group of genes were found to be associated with high intelligence scores, how fair would it be to other kids if parents had the option to choose these “smart genes” for their own children?

“A Natural Selection” is a short film which tells the story of a deaf couple who is considering the possibility of IVF and PGD, and learning of the ethical issues which surround them.

Article first published March 21, 2012

Ben Paylor

Ben Paylor completed a Bachelor of Medical Science at the University of Western Ontario, which included a 1-year research exchange to Umea in Northern Sweden. Following his Bachelors, he completed a 2-year Masters of Philosophy in Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Experimental Medicine program under the supervision of Dr. Fabio Rossi at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on understanding the role of tissue-resident mesenchymal progenitors in repair processes of the heart. Outside of science, Ben is an avid pianist and tennis player, as well as being very interested in the field of science communication and policy. He has written and directed several award-winning short films and is the co-founder and director of InfoShots, a science-based animation studio. Ben is a member of the Trainee Communications Committee at the Stem Cell Network and is a 2012/13 Action Canada fellow.

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