John and Karen - not their real names - are both deaf, and desperately wanted a deaf baby. But genetic testing showed that this was extremely unlikely. "They were devastated," recalls Arti Pandya, a clinical geneticist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who counselled the couple. It was two years before they got over their disappointment and started trying to conceive their first child.
The couple's attitude will shock many people. If you can hear, it's hard to understand why anyone would want a deaf child. But John and Karen's views are not that unusual among those who identify themselves as 'Deaf' with a capital 'D'. The Deaf view their condition not as a disability, but rather as the underpinning of a rich culture that should be celebrated and preserved. And with the identification of the most common genetic mutations linked to deafness, it is now possible, in theory, to make an active choice to have a deaf child.
This possibility turns the debate over designer babies on its head, providing ethicists and genetic counsellors with a dilemma. Only a tiny minority of deaf people would wish to use genetic tests in this way.
Some argue that their reproductive choices should be respected. But is society prepared to sanction the use of genetic diagnosis for a purpose that many find difficult to understand - and some might even see as immoral?