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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 00:05 GMT 01:05 UK
Concern over baby gene selection
Child, bbc
Parents might be able to choose their baby's IQ
Parents should not be allowed to select embryos for IQ or personality, an ethical watchdog in the UK has warned.

It may soon be possible to choose children with a particular behavioural trait, according to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

This is a potentially explosive area

Professor Bob Hepple
Genetic testing in fertility clinics could in theory allow embryos to be selected for the likes of above average intelligence, good behaviour and even sexual orientation, it says in its latest report, Genetics And Human Behaviour: The Ethical Context.

But such a move would be morally and ethically wrong, says a working group set up to canvass public opinion.

Currently, the selection of embryos using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis is restricted to serious diseases.

But working group member Professor Terrie Moffitt says there is "serious concern" that new applications could follow.

"Parents are highly motivated to have the best child possible - some would consider such a selection technique if it were available," the Institute of Psychiatry professor told BBC News Online.

"The science is active and is progressing," she added. "We want progress in analysing ethical and moral issues to keep pace with the progress of the science."

Research 'justified'

The report follows a public consultation on research into a possible link between genes and behaviour.

It is a controversial area not just because of concerns about the scientific validity of the work, but also because of the ethical, legal, and social implications.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics team looked at intelligence, antisocial behaviour, personality traits and sexual orientation.

So far, despite a number of highly publicised claims, no genetic variant has been shown conclusively to influence any of these, it says.

Professor Bob Hepple, QC, chairman of the working party and master of Clare College, Cambridge, said: "This is a potentially explosive area and the first question we asked was whether such research should be carried out at all.

"We concluded that it can be justified because it has the potential to advance our understanding of human behaviour. However, it is important to create safeguards to protect against its misuse."

Genes and law

The report also looks at the possible impact of genetics on criminal justice.

It concludes that genetic information about normal behaviours does not absolve an individual from responsibility for an offence.

However, the information could be taken into account by judges when sentencing, in the same way that environmental factors, such as poverty or an abusive childhood, may be considered.

gene analysis, bbc
"Behavioural genetics is bad science"
There is also concern that people might be encouraged to take medication to alter certain behaviours.

"We recommend that the Department of Health should ensure that the deliberate prescribing of medicines for behavioural traits within the normal range be monitored and, if necessary, controlled," says Professor Baldwin, a member of the working party and head of the department of philosophy at the University of York.

'Bad science'

Dr Helen Wallace of the pressure group GeneWatch UK says behavioural genetics in itself is flawed.

"Behavioural genetics is bad science leading to bad policy," she told BBC News Online.

"Genes are very poor predictors of behaviour because behaviour is complex.

"The danger is that a focus on genetics leads to a neglect of the underlying social, economic and environmental factors influencing things like crime."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Professor Bob Hepple, chairman of the working party
and Professor Ian Craft of the London Fertility Centre discuss the dangers
See also:

02 Aug 02 | Health
02 Mar 01 | Science/Nature
08 Mar 01 | Health
07 Feb 01 | Politics
07 Feb 01 | Health
22 Jan 01 | Business
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