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saviour sibling

noun [countable]

a child who is born with genetic characteristics specifically designed to treat the illness of an existing brother or sister

'The era of the so-called saviour sibling appeared to have arrived yesterday as doctors applauded the birth of Jamie Whitaker – called into the world to allow his sick older brother Charlie to live …'

The Guardian 20th June 2003

some disagree with the idea on ethical grounds, arguing that the long-term social and emotional effects on the donor sibling are unknown

In mid-June 2003 a baby boy, Jamie, was born in Sheffield to Jayson and Michelle Whitaker. Their situation represents a landmark case in reproductive genetics, and the establishment of a new piece of terminology in the field, the term saviour sibling. Baby Jamie is a 'saviour' for his four-year-old brother Charlie, who has a life-threatening blood disorder, because his embryo was selected specifically as a perfect tissue match. Charlie's only hope of a cure is through stem cells from brother Jamie's umbilical cord or a bone marrow transplant with his new brother as donor.

A hotly debated topic at the time of writing, the term saviour sibling is likely to have controversial overtones for some time. Some disagree with the idea on ethical grounds, arguing that the long-term social and emotional effects on the donor sibling are unknown. Others argue that the practice of controlled tissue matching is more justified if it benefits the health of the created child itself, as well as any sibling it would become a donor to.

Background – savour sibling

The term saviour sibling featured in an October 2002 article by M. Spriggs and J. Savulescu in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The phrase belongs to the terminology of what has in recent years been coined as reprogenetics, the use of genetic techniques to control the reproductive process. The related adjective reprogenetic also exists.

Reprogenetics forms the science underlying a concept that emerged somewhat earlier – so-called designer babies, a term first appearing around 1985. The phrase designer baby refers to a baby whose physical or mental characteristics (e.g. hair colour, musical ability) are chosen in advance by their parents. Though often used in similar contexts, the term designer baby has rather disapproving overtones compared to saviour sibling, where motivations for choice are strictly health-related.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 27th June 2003.

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