Last night MPs debated and voted on the ‘saviour siblings’ issue in the House of Commons. In the debate, Conservative MP Dominic Grieve condemned the misleading rhetoric of those who said that this wasn’t an issue of ‘designer babies’. Whether good or bad, Grieve argued, we shouldn’t play down the fact that there is an element of design involved: the babies are designed to have a specific tissue type that will be of potential benefit to an older sibling.

The fact that this is not the only reason for the creation of the life, and the fact that the babies are not ‘designed’ in any other way, does not deter from the fact that some level of design is involved and should be recognised as such, Grieve claimed.

His respondents hit back with the assertion that this was just a matter of selection and not of design: the required embryo is selected from an otherwise random process.

No doubt Grieve’s claim was intended to prevent his opponents from shrugging off the rhetorical force of the ‘designer baby’ criticism so easily. Whilst they may not be ‘designer babies’ in the fullest sense that that phrase implies, they are ‘designed’ nonetheless (he claimed).

Does selection count as design? Perhaps when it is intelligent and directed. It might even be though that design is inherently a matter of selection (that selection is necessary for design): I can design a pattern on a grid by selecting the colour of each square, and the composer designs his piece by selecting which note to place next.

However, it is not obvious that (intelligent) selection is sufficient for design. Our intuitions perhaps go the other way when a single act of selection takes place from among a set of options, as with selecting an embryo from a batch. The finished ‘product’ then does not seem to have been designed in itself, since a different selection would not have lead to any changes in that baby, but a different baby all together. We would not say that we in any way designed the house we live in simply because we chose it from a set of available houses to buy: a different choice would not have meant changes to this house, but a different house all together.

It is this, I believe, that is doing the work for those who claim it is not design: there is no way this particular baby could have been different given our selections, because our selections happened at an earlier stage. The consequences of this, however, are that given big enough selection of embryos with different traits, it should be possible to be quite specific in choosing the traits of your child without having any ‘design’ involved at all. You can hear the lab saying ‘We don’t design your child to have brown eyes and an aptitude for maths and music, we just select it from a wide range of potentials.’

What’s the moral here? Perhaps it is just that language is slippery, and that rhetorical force presses in from all sides (there is much more to ‘designer baby’ than issues of design). But it is also that that this is an issue of control. Design or no design, ‘intelligent selection’ is control.

As it happens, I have no firm opinions, moral or otherwise, on this issue.