Three models for the regulation of polygenic scores in reproduction

J Med Ethics. 2021 Jan 18;47(12):e91. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2020-106588. Online ahead of print.


The past few years have brought significant breakthroughs in understanding human genetics. This knowledge has been used to develop 'polygenic scores' (or 'polygenic risk scores') which provide probabilistic information about the development of polygenic conditions such as diabetes or schizophrenia. They are already being used in reproduction to select for embryos at lower risk of developing disease. Currently, the use of polygenic scores for embryo selection is subject to existing regulations concerning embryo testing and selection. Existing regulatory approaches include 'disease-based' models which limit embryo selection to avoiding disease characteristics (employed in various formats in Australia, the UK, Italy, Switzerland and France, among others), and 'laissez-faire' or 'libertarian' models, under which embryo testing and selection remain unregulated (as in the USA). We introduce a novel 'Welfarist Model' which limits embryo selection according to the impact of the predicted trait on well-being. We compare the strengths and weaknesses of each model as a way of regulating polygenic scores. Polygenic scores create the potential for existing embryo selection technologies to be used to select for a wider range of predicted genetically influenced characteristics including continuous traits. Indeed, polygenic scores exist to predict future intelligence, and there have been suggestions that they will be used to make predictions within the normal range in the USA in embryo selection. We examine how these three models would apply to the prediction of non-disease traits such as intelligence. The genetics of intelligence remains controversial both scientifically and ethically. This paper does not attempt to resolve these issues. However, as with many biomedical advances, an effective regulatory regime must be in place as soon as the technology is available. If there is no regulation in place, then the market effectively decides ethical issues.

Keywords: future child disability; genetic counselling/prenatal diagnosis; genetic selection; mentally disabled persons; regulation.