For the relatively small price of $99 (around R1 000) and some of your saliva, 23andMe, a service that specialises in a field called genomics (the study of DNA), will sequence your DNA to provide you with a wealth of information about your genetics traits and over 240 health conditions.
“The more you know about your DNA, the more you know about yourself”, says the 23andMe website, and the company operates under this premise. Users can gain insight into their health, potential adverse reactions to drugs, and the possibility of genetically inherited diseases being transmitted to their children. This all sounds fantastic, but this same information can also be used to decide the hair and eye colour for your unborn child.
23andMe was granted a patent for a service that it’s offered since 2009, called the “Inheritance Calculator”, which has allowed prospective parents to know which traits their unborn children would likely have. Brown hair, blue eyes, a gluten intolerance: these are all traits that the “Inheritance Calculator” has the power to predict, and with a certain level of certainty. The patent also covers the possibility that this service could be offered at fertility treatment facilities, allowing prospective parents to pick and choose traits that they want their offspring to have. In the age of in vitro fertilisation (IVF), where sperm donors are already tested for genetic markers for all manner of diseases and traits, a woman looking for a sperm donor could take the information that the Inheritance Calculator churns out and essentially ‘design a baby’.
Countries like Canada and the UK have already banned the use of the technology in this ethical grey area. In a blog post on the company site the company states, “At the time 23andMe filed the patent, there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics,” and that it “never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our (its) Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we (does it) have any plans to do so.”