Does embryo gender selection have a place in society?

Imagine a world where we are able to manufacture our own ‘designer baby’, where we could choose its eye colour, hair colour or even its build with just a single visit to the hospital. Where would it end? Would we ever be able to achieve perceived perfection in our children?

This may seem like some futuristic sci-fi fantasy, but in-fact it may not be as far off as you think. With rapidly advancing technology it is now possible to select the gender of your baby, like walking into a shop and choosing a book, so who knows what decisions you will be able to make about your child’s appearance and character in the near future. With a growing number of couples opting for so-called gender selection procedures abroad, is it possible that scientists have gone too far? At any rate, this  issue causes a lot of concern and raises the question as to whether gender selection has a place in our society.

So what is gender selection and how does it work?: This is a laboratory procedure which allows parents to choose the sex of their unborn child. Such gender selection can be achieved through a number of pre-implantation methods. The most common of which is known as In Vitro (outside the body) Fertilisation or IVF. In IVF, egg cells are removed from the mother and fertilised in a laboratory using sperm from the intended father. The fertilised eggs are then allowed to develop to a point where they can be separated on the basis of sex, embryos of the desired sex can then be re-implanted into the mother. A post-implantation blood test can also be used to confirm the sex of the baby. However this is often, unlawfully, followed by abortion if the sex is unwanted.

So where does society stand on this issue?: Currently, the UK law on gender selection (The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (1990, amended 2008)) prohibits selection of embryos on the basis of sex, except in cases of sex-linked genetic disorders. However, in contrast to Britain, countries such as the US and Russia openly practice gender selection for non-medical reasons; this is often rationalised as ‘family balancing’. The pro’s and cons of legalising this procedure are hotly debated, with extreme views held world-wide, this strong polarity in opinion makes the legalisation process extremely controversial.

Perhaps it would be apt at this point to consider the advantages and disadvantages of this type of selection:

One of the most prominent arguments for the legalisation of gender selection hinges on cases where there is a risk of diseases that may be passed onto the foetus. Many agree that when there is a risk of sex-linked diseases such as thalassemia (a blood disorder producing anaemia) and haemophilia (a disorder where blood clotting is impaired) being passed onto a child, it is morally justified to allow gender selection. This argument asserts that gender selection has a place in avoiding genetic conditions and preserving the health of future generations, a point of view that I empathise with. I believe that there is a need for gender selection to select away from life-long illnesses which would impact, not only on the individual, but also on the people that surround them. With rapidly advancing technology and sustained funding for research into such procedures, do we have a moral obligation to use this technology for the ‘greater good’?
It is also argued that, as individuals, we should be allowed the freedom to express our reproductive rights. Since each of us is free to take whatever path we choose when it comes to our own bodies, similar to the right to abort an unwanted child, we should also have the right to decide something as influential as the gender of our baby. However, I think we need to address the issue of whether it is moral to make such important decisions regarding someone’s life on their behalf, and without their consent.

Currently, doctors report an increase in the number of parents opting for abortion after discovering the sex of their baby. This drive to produce a baby of a certain sex can lead to a cycle which may continue until the desired sex is achieved. Some believe that legalising gender selection may help to put an end to the abortion of unwanted babies based purely on their sex. This is particularly relevant in countries such as China where there is huge pressure on parents to produce males to carry on the family name and to look after them when they retire. Here, gender selection is reinforced by the ‘One child’ policy that currently stands, meaning parents who have more than one child can be heavily fined. If gender selection was legalised in countries such as this, then there would be a massive reduction in the number of illegal abortions.

In contrast to this, supporting gender selection could have disastrous consequences demographically. A survey of 1500 couples in Hungary found that, of those who would consider using gender selection if it were made legal, 87% would want their first child to be male. In this case we would be left with a heavily male-dominated population. Such a population imbalance would undoubtedly lead to problems both with reproduction and the general structure of that society.

Many believe that one of the joys of parenthood is the unknown, the beauty of nature, the sheer surprise when you go for your first ultrasound. This opinion upholds that ‘tampering’ with an unborn child is something that should remain outside our control, and should be left to the hands of nature. If it is possible to choose the sex of our baby before it is even born, at what point would we stop trying to control every detail of our offspring, and actually get on with loving what we have been given?

Although it is apparent that making gender selection common practice in the UK should not be taken lightly, it is obvious that there is no clear-cut right or wrong. There are reasons for and against the UK following the US’ lead, and accepting gender selection into our future. In my view there are clearly positive connotations in legalising this procedure when selecting against genetic conditions that would otherwise have a negative impact on quality of life. I believe in cases such as these, society does not have the right to force anyone into having a child with a serious, perhaps even fatal, illness when the technology exists to prevent it. On the other hand, wide-spread legalisation is something I do not whole-heartedly agree with. I believe full legalisation of gender selection may be a step too far since such legislation may quickly lead to a heavily gender biased society whilst also opening the possibility of other types of genetic selection. However, the argument against gender selection centres heavily on leaving things as nature intended, but if this was the case then there would be no need for doctors and medicines, as we would be left to run our natural course without intervention. In conclusion, considerations need to be made based on whether it is morally acceptable to interfere with the course of nature, for medical or non-medical grounds.

With growing scope for genetic intervention the resulting moral maze will undoubtedly remain a topic of debate and conjecture across all walks of society (the above video shows one example of this discussion coming under scrutiny in the music industry).

Post by: Sam Lawrence

Optogenetics: The ultimate ‘light bulb’ moment

If the system underlying the ‘mind’ is a network of neurons constantly firing and wiring, then surely ‘mind control’ could be achieved by controlling the activity of neurons? Imagine being able to switch groups of neurons on and off instantaneously as simply as flipping a light switch. In fact, why not use light itself to control neurons; to control minds? How would you turn neurons deep in the dark depths of your brain into light-responders?……….Welcome to optogenetics (‘opto’ comes from ‘optos’, Greek for ‘visible’).

Science has yet again used a once thought ‘lower’ organism to make massive steps in understanding the way our biology works. The simple algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii looks pretty unremarkable – it swims about generally doing what algae do: photosynthesise, swim, repeat, etc. What makes it interesting, however, is that it can detect which way to swim using its ‘eyespot’. This eyespot, found on the surface of the alga, contains a pore called channel rhod-opsin that opens in response to light (in particular, blue light). When this channel is open, it lets calcium into the cell. In this case, calcium acts like the alga’s engine ignition. The calcium ions activate propeller-like flagellae, which do a sort of tiny breast-stroke towards the source of light.

As well as being an unexpectedly neat way of guiding this humble green blob towards the sun’s rays, this system is also a massively useful experimental tool. Until recently when scientists wanted to activate neurons they tended to rely on either drugs or electrical stimulation. These methods are far from perfect since drugs can be slow and may cause unwanted side effects; whilst electrical stimulation is too imprecise to target very specific groups of cells. Algae have now inspired scientists into designing similar light-responsive systems that they can whack into groups of neurons. With a bit of tinkering these systems can be targeted to any number of different neuron types and can respond to a variety of different coloured light. Some systems are slight tweaks on the basic channel rhod-opsin unit whilst others combine opsins from other types of algae or microbes that react to different coloured lights or for different lengths of time. Whatever the mechanism, these are tools that let you change the activity of specific groups of neurones at will – with millisecond precision.

So what can you do with these light-responsive systems – or ‘phototriggers’? Let’s start with flies. First install the DNA for a phototrigger system into neurons at the base of a fly’s wing, now from this DNA those neurons can construct their very own light-responsive receptors. These neurons become active when a light is shone on them, just like the algae. Shine a light, the neurons become active and fire, telling the wings to beat. Result: we have take-off. And just in case you’re thinking the fly just sees the light and tries to flee, the same happens in decapitated flies. Gross but true! If you want to know more or need to see it to believe it: see here.

So what else can we do with this amazing technology? Well, it has been used experimentally to help us understand a number of brain functions. For example, in order to understand how choices are made, optogenetic techniques were used to switched on and off a flies’ preference for certain smells. This led to the amazing discovery of the fly’s inner critic, an assembly of 12 neurones that govern the decisions flies make. Scientists have also inserted light-responsive elements into more complex animals in an attempt to prove a causal relationship between certain groups of brain cells and a specific behaviour. In the video below, a mouse runs around every time a blue light is shone into its brain, meaning that the switching on of the light-activated brain cells causes the mouse to run. Another study made a mouse ‘prefer’ to freeze on the spot by illuminating – and therefore activating – its reward centres every time it chanced upon a particular place in its cage. These experiments are elegant and powerful because they identify the particular set of brain cells that cause, or lead to some pretty complex actions. More recently, in a bid to unravel the mysteries of how the brain deals with fear and rewards, scientists have used a similar light sensitive system to make rats remember a fearful situation. If mice or rats have minds (the complexities of which, we don’t know), then surely this counts as mind control?


When I first heard about optogenetics, I was gobsmacked at how clever and insightful the technology sounded. A small part of me was originally hesitant, however. I’ve obviously watched too many films that make me almost suspicious of a tool that could potentially enable mind control, or, dare I say it, ‘brainwashing’. Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange springs to mind: “When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” (Anthony Burgess). The implications of this technology are massive and, without wanting to sound like too much of a film nerd, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ (Spiderman, if you’re wondering). Luckily, though, after reading up on optogenetics, I’ve come round to realise that its potential for good far outweighs the fearsome idea that the technology would be used to construct an army full of mindless, Jason Bourne-esque zombies. Like I said, I watch far too many films.

Instead, the ability to manipulate the brain as we’ve never been able to in the past is being put to good use. Awful diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis – to name but a few – are currently not curable. In an aging population more prone to age-related brain disorders, it’s an increasingly big problem. Optogenetics is a valuable tool with which to study these diseases in order to find treatments. It may even prove a valuable tool in itself – for some Parkinson’s patients, who currently rely on drugs to switch on faulty neurones, optogenetics might offer a powerful alternative with no dodgy side effects. Not only that, but how the brain works is still, to a large extent, a mystery. Optogenetics allows scientists to essentially break the brain apart into its different components to isolate different groups of cells to study how each of them work and affect each other: ultimately leading to our ability to sense, think and act .

Post by: Natasha Bray