Ethical Dilemma: 23andMe’s Patent and Genetic Selection
Image: John Murphy via Flickr
A few weeks ago, I admitted that I didn’t trust the company that made 23andMe due to the terms and conditions attached to their product. It was a gut decision that I revisited this week when I read about the patent they applied for that they insist they have no plans to use. Right… because often companies go through lengthy, expensive legal processes for intellectual property they have no desire to put into use. They write on their site:
At the time 23andMe filed the patent, there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics so language specific to the fertility treatment process was included in the patent. But much has evolved in that time, including 23andMe’s strategic focus. The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so.
I would totally believe them, that they have no plans to use the patent in the way they say they will use the patent, if they didn’t complete the patent process. But according to the USPTO, a patent is granted after many steps have been completed, including the final step: a payment of the issue fee and publication fee.
- Step 11, USPTO – If objections and rejection of the examiner are overcome, USPTO sends Notice of Allowance and Fee(s) due
- Step 12, Applicant – Applicant pays the issue fee and the publication fee
- USPTO Grants Patent
In other words, at the end of this long, expensive process, they just invested more money into something they have no intention of using as an asset to make money as a company beyond its current use? Doesn’t ring true to me.
I actually would have been fine with 23andMe if they had been honest, saying that they have every intention of having fertility clinics use the technology to screen donors. Then my post would be focusing on the fertility clinics and not the company itself. But, sorry 23andMe, you now get the ethical weight on YOUR shoulders.
The patent in question, being debated across a multitude of sites and making the sensitive people of the world crawl into the comment section to write about how all people who use fertility treatments want “designer babies,” gives potential parents (or in this case, donors) information on which physical traits or medical conditions they may pass along to a child.
What the hell do people mean when they throw out the term “designer baby”? Designer clothing is called as such because it carries the name of a designer. Who is the designer in the case of the designer baby since there is no person on earth who can fashion a human being from scratch? And why is it said with such contempt? A friend used PGD to ensure that her child wasn’t passed a fatal illness; how does that create an uber-baby, somehow different from all other babies who are born without said disease?
I guess I’m not really sure how being able to create more favourable odds for a certain trait to make an appearance or to keep a disease from being passed along to the next generation in a family makes a child “designer.” I guess I’d like Lydia O’Connor from Huffington Post to explain exactly what she means by a “designer” baby since it isn’t clear from her article, yet she uses it for her opening: “We may be one step closer to designer babies.”
So, Ms. O’Connor, care to explain?
As 23andMe points out, genetic selection is something that one can do on a small scale simply by using their eyes. Two tall parents are likely going to produce a tall child. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s likely.
So we come to our first ethical question: (1) is it okay for a tall woman to purposefully marry a tall man (sorry, a lot of these questions are going to be hetero-focused since we’re talking about unassisted conception) because she wants tall children?
Then we have to take the question a step further: (2) is it okay for a tall woman to purposefully use the sperm of a tall man in creating a donor-assisted child because she wants tall children?
Then we go further still: (3) is it okay for a reproductive endocrinologist to test embryos before transferring them, only putting in ones that have strong potential for height?
Set aside potential height (remember: not guaranteed height) for a moment. Some people choose their perspective partner because of their family medical history or reject a person due to their family medical history. While I think we’d like to believe that love conquers all, we also know that many people engage in genetic testing prior to or after marriage, even before they hit the genetic testing that takes place during a pregnancy. So (4) is that ethical — choosing a partner because they don’t have a history of a genetic illness that runs in your family?
And taking that a step further: (5) is it okay for a couple to use a donor to possibly skirt the passing on of a genetic condition?
And then going further still: (6) is it okay for a reproductive endocrinologist to test embryos before transferring them, and only putting in ones that do not have the increased risk for a genetic illness?
Generally when we talk about this, people say that it’s totally fine to do it in the second case because it’s a matter of life-or-death, imagining the disease at hand to be deadly, such as Tay-Sachs.
But what about something else that has strong genetic ties but isn’t fatal? Such as an increased cancer risk, when the cancer itself is treatable? Or mental illnesss? No one wants their child to suffer, especially if there are ways to circumvent the possibility. But there’s a reason why this question is such great fodder for ethics classes. There is no easy answer on where to draw the line.
It’s okay to have a different standard for genetic traits such as height as opposed to life-threatening illnesses, but what we do need to do is define why. Why are we okay doing everything in our power to avoid an increased risk of cancer, but not doing everything in our power to help the odds of a child being a certain physical trait? Especially when parents are not asking for the same physical trait; the desired trait is personal to the parent; vs. being imposed by a governmental plan.
Thoughtful family building usually isn’t a crap shoot. We’ve subconsciously or consciously chosen a partner we believe will be good to procreate with, both for nature as well as nurture. When we imagine a future child, we super-impose the traits we believe they may inherit, including the ones we’re fearful of them receiving. So it’s interesting to see the strong reaction and the screams of “designer baby” when we take it a single step further and actually do testing to have stronger proof of the chances.
And I do think that feelings about fertility treatments — especially who the general public believes engages in assisted conception — comes into play in the larger discussion of 23andMe’s patent.
It’s an interesting topic to debate in a mindful manner. (Yes, that was a hint!)
So where are boundaries for you on the ethical questions above?