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Special Report

All-Star Panel: Debate over 'designer babies' heats up

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," February 26, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARTHUR CAPLAN, NYU MEDICAL ETHICS DIRECTOR: It's one thing to set out to repair a disease by genetic modification. It's a different issue to say, hey, I want to figure out if I should use this to make a taller baby, or a stronger baby, or a smarter baby. This may open the door to doing those things, but I'm not sure you can hold the babies hostage and say we're not going to fix diseases because it might lead to a slippery slope.

MATTHEW FRANCK, WITHERSPOON INSTITUTE: This would introduce a new family structure. Three genetic parents even if the contribution of the third parent with some mitochondrial DNA was very small. This is something that should not be undertaken without serious consideration of what we're doing to family relationships.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRET BAIER: The FDA, a two-day fact finding symposium on this controversial technology to manipulate genetic material to create children with not two, but three genetic parents in order, scientists say, to avoid potentially fatal mitochondrial disease. But what about this, the ethics of it, and where we're heading here? We're back with the panel. Steve?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, I think there are basically two issues. Should we be doing this at all? And should we be doing it now? The first one, I think, is an exceedingly difficult ethical question. If we allow, as the person in that sound bite suggested, if we allow this to happen now for what we consider noble reasons, will we then restrict this activity later for the same reasons? Or will it open the door for people to pick and choose whether you are talking about eye color or height or what have you?

The second question to me seems much easier answer, and the answer is no, we shouldn't be doing it now. We would need before anything like this was undertaken on any kind of a broader scale to have a major national public debate about the wisdom of doing. And there are also, I think, serious safety questions about this. If you look back at the 19 babies that were produced this way before 2001, before the FDA put a stop on this, two of them developed Turner syndrome, which the usual rates of incidence of that is one in 2,500. We can't draw a line from A to B and say that was the problem, but it raises questions and there hasn't been any systematic longitudinal testing of the babies that were produced and the health of the children who are now alive with this.

BAIER: Mara, leading ethicists have said the FDA should put the brakes on this. We have not heard from the president's bioethics council.

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: No, and I think you will hear eventually. But I think the White House feels it's a little too early for that. This is a debate that's just beginning. I agree with Steve. I don't think we should do it now. We don't know enough about it. I for one don't really understand what is in that mitochondrial DNA? It certainly – is it the stuff that determines what kind of hair color or intelligence you have?

On the other hand, there are a lot of parents who don't want to have a child with a genetic disease and they want to do something about that. But I do think this is an important debate to have. This is the stem cell debate of today. That's what this is about. There are people who objected to this because there are embryos that are destroyed in the process, as they would be with any kind of stem cells. But this not unlike GMOs when we talk about plants. These are genetically modified human beings that we're talking about. It's a pretty big, serious debate.

BAIER: Put us farther along than even Europe or Asia as far as that goes.

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, we have in a remarkably short time become used to, in a blink in the human experience, to children conceived in lab dishes and brought to term in surrogate wombs. This, however, is different. It is, however, described accurately I think as therapy. That is, it is the pursuit of an accepted norm of health, the prevention of disease. At most, you would describe it as negative eugenics. The problem is, it's in the same neighborhood of eugenics. It's one thing to say we are going to prevent a crippling or fatal illness. It's another thing to say, well, maybe there is a Michael Jordan in this DNA somewhere. I think we are a long way from that scientifically, a long way from that ethically and if it is possible to draw a line where you can stop on this slippery slope between therapy and the engineering of designer children, it's worth trying.

BAIER: I want to turn to a different study out this past week on child obesity. Ages two to five down 43 percent in 2011, 2012, compared to 2003, 2004. And, George, you weighed in having some thoughts about these stats.

WILL: The most effective thing government does is disseminate public health information -- smoking, seatbelts, all kind of things. If these numbers, which look like outliers, but if they are, in fact, real, because it's in children aged two to five when obesity sets in as a life crippling experience, it's an astonishing way to begin to promote health. Medicine is not health. Medicine is what you do when you have lost health. This is a way to prevent terrible things from happening.

If we could reduce vehicular accidents, violence, coronary artery disease, obesity, and the adult onset diabetes that comes with it, all the result of known risky behavior, if we can change behavior, we can do a lot more to reduce our health care [inaudible] than tinkering with legislation will ever do.

LIASSON: If those numbers are correct, and they are astonishing numbers.

BAIER: I was just going to say, the "Journal of Science" has some questions.

LIASSON: Yes. They are astonishing numbers. I think it is a testament to the bully pulpit -- the use of the bully pulpit and moral suasion. And the first lady has adopted this as her cause, and you have got to give her some credit for it if, in fact, those numbers are true.

BAIER: Final thoughts, Steve?

HAYES: Yes, I think that's a big if. We don't know that and that would be an awfully short time to see that kind of a turnaround because of a campaign that the first lady undertook.

BAIER: That is it for the panel. But stay tuned for special birthday surprise.

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