23andMe, a personal genetics firm, was recently awarded a patent for its tool, Family Traits Inheritance Calculator. The tool involves computer-matching technology that allows parents to custom-design their unborn babies in a "fun way."
Parents can specify the height, eye colour, muscle development and personality traits through the Web site. When done with their choices, they can put all chosen traits to their "shopping list."
Ethicists cried foul to this and said the patent governing body should have considered the ethical implications before approving the patent.
"Selecting children in (such) ways is hugely ethically controversial, " ethicists wrote in the journal published by Genetics Medicine.
Jayne Lucke, from the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research, stated that 23andMe should not be allowed to pursue such tool even if it wanted to. The only permitted process of this kind is to choose embryos, ova or sperm for disease-prevention purposes. Science should not allow parents to choose certain types of babies.
"It's an illusion that you can design a baby that way - the technology is a fair way away, " Dr Lucke reiterated.
Loane Skene, University of Melbourne law expert, said that patent governing bodies should not decide on things involving ethical issues.
"They do not have the resources or expertise."
Leslie Cannold, ethicist and commentator, agreed that patent laws were not created to abide by moral complexities and that genetic science "was never intended for such frivolous use."
In an answer to this, ScottH of 23and Me, clarified that the company has no intentions of using the Family Traits Inheritance Calculator beyond what the company's objectives were. He said that the language of the patent "extends beyond the calculator's" nature of purpose.
"The tool - Family Traits Inheritance Calculator- offers an engaging way for you and your partner to see what kind of traits your child might inherit from you. The Family Trait Inheritance Calculator has also been part of our service since 2009 and is used by our customers as a fun way to look at such things as what eye color their child might have or if their child will be able to perceive bitter taste or be lactose intolerant. The tool offers people an enjoyable way to dip their toes into genetics. It aligns nicely with our goal to introduce people to their DNA and help them better understand the science of genetics, which can sometimes be complicated.
"When 23andMe applied for the patent, it was meant to cover the technology that supports our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator. But the language of the patent extends beyond the calculator and so we want to be very clear about our technology and our intentions.
"The patent process takes years, and businesses often file patents without knowing exactly how they might be used (or if they will be used at all) so that they can protect an innovation. At the time 23andMe filed the patent, there was consideration that the technology could have potential applications for fertility clinics so language specific to the fertility treatment process was included in the patent. But much has evolved in that time, including 23andMe's strategic focus. The company never pursued the concepts discussed in the patent beyond our Family Traits Inheritance Calculator, nor do we have any plans to do so," ScottH wrote.