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Guest post: 23andMe’s “designer baby” patent: When corporate governance and open science collide

portrait6_cropped_2Barbara Prainsack is at the Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine at King’s College London. Her work focuses on the social, regulatory and ethical aspects of genetic science and medicine.

More than seven years ago, my colleague Gil Siegal and I wrote a paper about pre-marital genetic compatibility testing in strictly orthodox Jewish communities. We argued that by not disclosing genetic results at the level of individuals but exclusively in terms of the genetic compatibility of the couple, this practice gave rise to a notion of “genetic couplehood”, conceptualizing genetic risk as a matter of genetic jointness. We also argued that this particular method of genetic testing worked well for strictly orthodox communities but that “genetic couplehood” was unlikely to go mainstream.

Then, last month, a US patent awarded to 23andMe – which triggered heated debates in public and academic media (see here, here, here, here and here, for instance) – seemed to prove this wrong. The most controversially discussed part of the patent was a claim to a method for gamete donor selection that could enable clients of fertility clinics a say in what traits their future offspring was likely to have. The fact that these “traits” include genetic predispositions to diseases, but also to personality or physical and aesthetic characteristics, unleashed fears that a Gattaca-style eugenicist future is in the making. Critics have also suggested that the consideration of the moral content of the innovation could or should have stopped the US Patent and Trademark Office from awarding the patent.
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