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Designer descendants

With its latest futuristic thriller, Hollywood treats us to a genetically engineered society where embryos are doctored in petri dishes, identities come by choice, not chance, and all the power and perks go to DNA-elites of the Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman non-variety.

The eeriest thing about Gattaca, though, is not how far out it seems but how close it hits to home.

Infertile couples already order up future children based on looks and intelligence, and doctors already create multiple embryos in the lab, growing only those with healthy DNA. Geneticists say it is merely a matter of time before embryos can be cured _ and their traits enhanced. All one has to do is glance through GQ to see how parents might define perfection. Writes Glenn McGee, author of The Perfect Baby: "6 feet tall, weighing in at 185 pounds, without hereditary disease. His brain is engineered to an IQ of 150. . . . He has blond hair, blue eyes, archetypal beauty, and poise."

Manipulating human DNA to improve traits, not merely to treat illness, sends ethical chills down the spines of many who worry about its potentially grave effects on society. They say breeding humans leads to assigning worth, and assigning worth inevitably leads to consigning those deemed unworthy.

Watching Gattaca, one can't help but see the unpleasant human possibilities.

"There's a new underclass. We now have discrimination down to a science," explains Hawke's on-screen character, a DNA-lackluster "faith" child deemed suitable only for the task of cleaning toilets. Gattaca's level of stratification _ between superstars conceived in vitro and "deGENE-erates" born in utero _ is admittedly extreme, but real-world ethicists are already warning of similar social, and political, dangers.

As debate intensifies over the intersection of assisted reproduction and genetics, we should not lose sight of the real human toll gene enhancement might exact on children. How could an artificially "perfect" child ever live up to the billing? And how would a naturally "ordinary" child ever get the chance? In this brave new world, what happens when a child doesn't like the fit of her designer genes?

Don't expect many answers from the fertility industry. Even before Gattaca hit the box offices, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine _ a 10,000-member association of fertility clinics and doctors _ hit the pavement to denounce its "fictional depiction of "genetics gone awry' " and its idea of "custom designed babies."

But is the "designer" label that far off base?

It's been more than 15 years since the first test-tube baby was born, and fertility technology has not paused for a breath since. Today, more than 40,000 children owe their existence to in vitro fertilization, and the reproductive possibilities continue to expand. With in vitro fertilization, eggs are drawn from the mother's (or a younger donor's) body, fertilized in the lab with the father's (or another donor's) sperm, and then implanted in the mother's (or a surrogate's) uterus. Just last month came news of the latest breakthrough: healthy twin boys born from a long-frozen egg, fertilized by a direct injection of sperm.

The ability to use donor sperm or eggs allows couples to win genes and influence traits. Whereas once parents took what they got, now many get to choose. Consider:

+ Intended parents can order "prime" sperm, from Nobel Prize winners or Olympic gold medalists no less, right off a color-coded sperm-bank menu. For $3,000, they can use the genetic material of a brilliant scientist, creative genius or a heroic jock. "Give your child a genetically advantaged start in life" and "put more of our best genes into the human gene pool," pleads the Internet advertisement for California's Repository for Germinal Choice.

+ Couples often select egg donors, after poring over picture books, based on physical appearance and ethnic background, education and socioeconomic status. Several years ago, an Italian clinic agreed to implant the egg of a white donor into their black patient's womb so her future child could escape racial discrimination.

+ At dozens of clinics, sperm is now separated so parents may pick the sex of their offspring. Studies show most go for the boy.

Humans have always tried to influence how their babies will come out. A woman eats certain foods during pregnancy believing she increases her chances for a girl; another chooses a mate only for the "superior" genes he will pass along; a third puts music to her abdomen so her newborn will turn out to be the next Beethoven.

But these donor-selection decisions are more direct, by far. Intended parents "may not be able to design their descendants just yet, but the power to choose sperm from a drive-through sperm bank is only a few yards short," writes McGee.

The door to society's genetic maneuvering room is expected to open wide once scientists isolate genes for diseases, traits or predispositions. The Human Genome Project is already well on that way. An ambitious 15-year, $200-million annual undertaking, the project expects to map out all human genes and, along with them, ways to treat hereditary conditions. Once isolated, a rare disease could be cut out of the embryo's DNA _ and family tree _ forever.

This genetic research is critical, as it promises to save countless lives. But it carries significant dangers as well. Many project researchers _ already searching out hereditary markers for intelligence, alcoholism, criminality and sexual orientation _ want the way paved for widespread genetic alterations, even for non-therapeutic purposes. Some ethicists rightly fear that the power to cure disease may morph into the pressure to improve the "imperfect."

With the possibility of enhancement at their fingertips, how many parents could resist giving their offspring a genetic boost? If not they, then society should pause on the emotional costs of genetic manipulation. In a world where genes are constantly tweaked, altered children may become nothing more than walking traits, and unaltered children may become nothing, period. While the latter might never get the opportunity to be perfect, the former would never get the chance to be themselves.

Earlier this month, ABC News interviewed a young boy who was conceived in vitro using "genius" donor sperm. The 15-year-old, already showing an IQ of 180, was asked if it's getting harder for him to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

"I haven't done anything spectacular in a while," he replied.

Of course he had. It's just that we were too busy looking for "perfection" to notice.

The boy's haunting remark came to mind as I watched Gattaca's portrayal of a young man programed with superior athlete genes. He made it to the Olympics _ and came up a medal-color short.

Designed for one task in life, he became defined by one failure. "They have you looking so hard for any flaw, after awhile, that's all you see," he despaired.

Is this really science fiction anymore?

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