Barbara Walters takes a look at some of what genetic research has wrought in Wednesday's ABC News Special, "A Perfect Baby."
Because of new diagnostic techniques available through amniocentesis, couples can learn whether their unborn child is afflicted with a number of genetic problems from Down syndrome to cystic fibrosis, the disastrous Tay-Sachs disease, and perhaps one day soon, a gene indicating a predisposition to addiction.
Then the parents may decide whether to abort a fetus that doesn't meet their requirements.
Other prospective parents, seeking pregnancy by artificial insemination, arrive at clinics with shopping lists of traits they want for their child.
The search for the perfect baby is one replete with ethical considerations an earlier generation never had to face.
Walters, who both hosts the show and moderates a roundtable panel of experts, said she's particularly fond of "A Perfect Baby."
For one thing, she said, unlike many specials she's hosted, this one is very much hers, having sprung from her memo to ABC News president Roone Arledge.
"This was a show I care about," she said. "I'm more involved in this one, and I did a lot of the writing.
"I think it's important -- I don't like to use the word 'entertaining,' because it isn't fun and games."
The special gave her a chance to go into a hospital nursery and hold a day-old infant she refers to as "Baby Amanda," who was, like the other infants there, perfectly content and quiet.
"It's been so long since I've held something so little," said Walters. "All the little babies were asleep. They'd been fed a half-hour earlier. They loved the hot lights. The next day, they all got released."
The program's roundtable of experts included Walters' former roommate at Sarah Lawrence, Joan Marks, who is director of that college's human genetics program.
The other panelists are Leroy Hood, a molecular biologist from California Institute of Technology; Paul Billings, director of Harvard Medical School's Clinic for Inherited Diseases; Arthur Caplan of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota, and Francis Collins, chief of the Division of Medical Genetics, University of Michigan.
Collins' assistant, Jeff Pinard, who appears in the special, is afflicted with cystic fibrosis.
"A Perfect Baby" also gave Walters an opportunity to talk to the mother of a colleague, Chris Oden, an associate producer on ABC's "20/20." Among Pauline Oden's 11 children was a boy severely afflicted with Down syndrome who lived 31 years.
Walters said her interest in making the special had been piqued by advances in genetic research and in vitro fertilization.
"I had felt there were so many changes," she said. "There was a while we thought everything was environment; now it seems that it's all biological. And there were enormously provocative subjects, like sperm banks, to the kind of choices we will have to make about the quality of our lives, the questions we haven't even faced.
"There are questions that make you turn around and say, 'What would I do?' And then this business of decisions: You make may be making the right decision at the time and then things change. We're facing some of them right now, such as those insurance questions."
"Those insurance questions" may be formidable. Will a parent who knows his or her child may have a disease or handicap -- such as Huntington's disease, which doesn't show up until middle age, or Down syndrome, which is there at conception -- have to pay larger health insurance premiums on that child? Will a business corporation want to know its employees' genetic health histories before it offers a job?
Robert Waldron, a spokesman for the insurance industry, tells Walters that, "We're dealing here with unemerged technology, partial technology. The legal issues have to be settled. The ethical issues have to be settled. And until that happens, this industry is saying literally to the public: We're not touching it."
In addition to the pocketbook issues, the special offers a collection of interesting profiles of couples and individuals striving to have children.
Among them are Adrienne and David Ramm, who visited the Repository for Germinal Choice in Escondido, Calif., known as "the genius sperm bank" because it stocks sperm from Nobel Prize-winners, Olympic athletes and other high achievers.
There, Adrienne Ramm was twice artificially inseminated and produced two daughters. The profile of her second daughter's biological father describes him as 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, a handsome, highly intelligent businessman who is a world champion and "one of the most accomplished athletes in the world."
The dark-haired, dark-eyed Ramms are raising two blue-eyed blonde daughters, now 5 and 2. The elder has already been identified by her school as gifted.
We also meet Nadine Moody, an unmarried woman with an adopted child, who wants to bear one of her own and admits that she has no prospects for marriage. Hoping to be artificially inseminated, she chose the Fertility Research Foundation in Manhattan and presented her "shopping list": a blond, blue-eyed boy with musical and athletic abilities and a high IQ.
Choosing one's children's qualities opens the door to choices: a boy or a girl? blond or brunet? tall? athletic? musical?
Walters calls them "designer children." And she asks her panel, "Does it give you a little kind of a creepy feeling? A little bit of what the Nazis were trying to do?"
Then there is amniocentesis, which presents other choices when parents learn that their unborn child will have a hereditary disease such as cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs, a degenerative brain disorder most prevalent among Jews of Eastern European descent.
Hal Gershowitz and his late wife Bayla knew nothing of genetic testing when they had their first son, Steven. But both were carriers for Tay-Sachs, the disease that claimed their son in childhood.
Amniocentesis also can reveal the presence of Down syndrome, a form of mental retardation with some physical characteristics. But the test cannot tell expectant parents how severe the disease will be.
Emily Kingsley's Down syndrome son, Jason, 16, goes to a local junior high school, enjoys science particularly and is able to take care of himself and do his household chores.
But Pauline Oden's son Chester, who died in January of viral pneumonia at the age of 31, was severely retarded, yet she never put him in an institution. One of his 10 brothers and sisters is Chris Oden, an associate producer at ABC's "20/20."
"I remember when the boy died, I sent a condolence note," said Walters. "Then Chris said his mother said she wouldn't mind talking about her son. Mrs. Oden told me if she had to do it all over again, she would not have given birth to Chester. But two of her daughters said if they were in the same situation, they would keep the child."
Another young couple, identified only as Rhonda and Steve, had the same choice to make. When they learned their child would be born with Down syndrome, they opted for abortion.
"If they could have given us some idea ... that this is a mild form, this is a severe form, if there was a way to have told us that, our decision may have been different," says Steve.
Using a test developed only a year ago, prospective parents who are carriers for cystic fibrosis can learn through amniocentesis whether their unborn child will have the congenital, incurable disease.
Before the test was developed, Kim and Phil Lynch became the parents of two daughters, one with the disease, one without. Expecting a third child, they await the call from their physician telling them whether the fetus is affected.
And we meet Jeff Pinard, 20, who works for panelist Collins in his laboratory at the University of Michigan. Afflicted with cystic fibrosis, Pinard strives to lead a normal life that includes a weekly game of racquetball although he must have his lungs pounded free of mucous each night.
Walters also shows us the ravages of Huntington's disease, which does not appear until middle age and then destroys its victims both physically and mentally. One was Depression-era songwriter Woody Guthrie, who died at 42 and whose son, musician Arlo Guthrie, has decided that he doesn't want to know whether he will be equally debilitated. He has a 50-50 chance, but tells Walters that he believes that living a productive life, no matter how short, is preferable to "feeling that sword over my head."
Walters briefly mentions "the gene recently identified as playing a role in alcoholism." Not much time is devoted to this discovery, which was announced in the April 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article reported that researchers from UCLA and the University of Texas found a gene "suspected of playing a role in addictive behavior" in a majority of alcoholics the researchers studied.
There is also another reason that Barbara Walters has always been interested in genetics and related problems and in the decisions families must make.
"It's not something that I really want known," said Walters, but she acknowledged that part of her interest in doing "A Perfect Baby" stemmed from her growing up with an older sister whom she described as "mildly retarded."
"I know what it did to our life. I know how it affected our life to have a child who was retarded. We think it was because of a forceps delivery. My interest in handicapped children began somewhat with that.
"And I have a daughter-in-law who was going through in vitro, so I was interested in that. And I have another daughter-in-law who has one girl and would love a son."
Both are the wives of the sons of Merv Adelson, whom Walters married in 1986.
Walters, who will be 59 in September, also has an adopted daughter, Jacqueline, 22. And after all, the multi-award-winning newswoman does look so comfortable holding the sleeping Baby Amanda.
So, Barbara, are you looking forward to becoming a grandmother?
"Bite your tongue," she said quickly.