Just 35 years ago, the world witnessed the birth of Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby. At the beginning of this month, just a few days before the anniversary of this event, a team at the University of Oxford announced at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology Conference in London the birth of Connor Levy, the first baby born using a method involving a complete genetic screening of the embryo’s genome.

In fact, the Chinese, for it was Jian Li, of the Beijing Genomics Institute who, at the same conference, stated that he and his team had achieved the same result 11 months prior. The method involves the extraction and analysis of 7 to 12 embryonic cells five days after in vitro fertilisation has taken place. Only those embryos which are genetically pure are transferred to the uterus. Jian Li added that since its first successful trial, 17 children have been born using this technique; Connor being the “first on the Western Hemisphere”.

This technique, known as “Next Generation Sequencing”, is the latest advance in the field of clinical embryology which since 1978 has produced around five million children using IVF – a field increasingly concerned with genetic perfection, as suggested by William Saletan in Slate magazine.

Genetic selection of embryos

En 2002, JAMA journal announced the birth of the first baby born free of inherited pre-disposition for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease; the baby was the result of a study that analysed 15 embryos; seven of these were discarded due to apparently being defective, and the rest were stored cryogenically. A year later, the first baby originating from a frozen embryo was born: ten embryos were thawed, eight analysed, five transferred and only one survived. The following year saw the birth of a baby resulting from genetic screening performed to ensure its integrity, even though the family did not have a history of genetic disorders. In 2005, a baby was born through a selection process performed to save it from erythroblastosis fetalis (Rh incompatibility).

It’s a Russian roulette of laboratory genetic selection

And in 2009, we witnessed the birth of the first baby free of the BRCA1 mutation which predisposes women to breast cancer; here, eleven embryos were produced; six were discarded because they carried the BRCA mutation and another three were discarded due to other anomalies. This brings us to Connor. His parents began with thirteen embryos: three passed the screening test and only one made it to the finishing line. After implementing screening for genetic defects and the emergence of saviour siblings, many will soon ask to choose the sex of their baby and soon there will be those that want to choose other desired characteristics in their offspring. “It’s a Russian roulette of laboratory genetic selection”, remarks William Saletan. “We govern the choosing and the extermination. We celebrate our victories. We hide the tragedies and the cost. Sleep well, Connor. You’re the happy ending of the only story we choose to tell.” This concludes the article written by José Ramón Zárate, published in Diario Médico. 29-07/ 4-08-2013.

In our opinion, this represents one further step towards a genetic selection of embryos. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis can select embryos, the children of parents who carry some genetic or hereditary disorder. A high number of embryos are produced, and one cell is taken from each for analysis when the embryo is at the eight-cell stage. These are then screened and those that are free of the genetic disease are then implanted. This technique is clearly eugenic in nature because we are selecting certain embryos for health reasons and allowing only these to live, discarding the rest.

But we’re taking this eugenic practice one step further: we’re not just discarding embryos which carry a genetic or hereditary disease, we’re also analysing their genome to see whether they carry some other disease or even if they are at risk of suffering from said disease as an adult, as in the case of embryos screened for the BRCA1 mutation, which means that as adults, the embryos that carry the mutation may be at risk of developing breast cancer.

This step represents a grave ethical risk, as it opens the door to embryo selection for any reason whatsoever – universal embryo selection!

This raises many ethical concerns, yet I am only going to examine one. This technique involves the destruction of embryos, human lives, based on a risk of disease, in this case breast cancer which today carries a high probability of being effectively treated. Yet who can assure us that in 30 years’ time, when the risk of developing this type of cancer is actually real, treatment of the disease won’t be 100% effective and the risk reduced to zero?

This practice is clearly eugenic; and while some believe that it represents a great medical advance, we should really see it as one step closer to a “culture of death” which will inexorably enjoy greater acceptance in our society.

Justo Aznar

Bioethics Observatory



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