Cheating in lottery of life
The Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand)
IF YOU have a problem with cloning you won't want to know about Lee Silver's vision of the future. In his new book Remaking Eden the US biologist from Princeton University described how next century's parents will be making babies. Needless to say it won't involve any sex. In vitro fertilisation will be the method of choice, he says, even for fertile couples. But rather than creating just a handful of embryos, as happens with IVF these days, the 21st century version will involve putting together at least 100 eggs and sperm.
Full genetic testing will be carried out on all of them and a computer profile made showing how each potential baby would turn out. The mother picks the child she would most like to have, that embryo is implanted and nine months later she gives birth.
It's not hard to imagine what such a computer programme might look like. There would be 100 little icons, each corresponding to a fertilised egg. Click on embryo No 1 and a picture of a dark-haired, brown-eyed teenage girl pops up. She has her father's chin, mother's high cheek bones and, according to the caption underneath, will grow to between 160 and 170 centimetres tall.
Any genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle anemia are listed. There is a whole file of possible health problems that, while not completely determined by genetics, are influenced by them. The risks are estimated for each potential child. The likelihood of developing various cancers, for example, heart disease and even bad habits such as tobacco addiction and over-drinking.
Across the 100 embryos there would be an enormous variety of vital statistics. Some would be male, some would have blonde hair, some would be tall and some short. Some would have a greater than average chance of being good at sport while others would be more likely to be musically talented. Some would have serious genetic defects, others merely predispositions to lesser health problems such as allergies.
The computer profile would even reveal likely personality traits based on the genetic information. Parents could choose between a fiery temperament or a more even one. Between a child who is likely to have good analytical abilities and one who is more creative.
When making the choice, compromise would be the name of the game as there is no such thing as a perfect child. No doubt there would be arguments and many lists of good points and bad points. Of course there are no guarantees either.
The environment the child grows up in will have an enormous influence. But the parents will at least be satisfied they've given junior the best possible start.
Lee Silver thinks something like this scenario will be up and running before halfway through next century. In fact a simplified version of it is already in operation. Some IVF mothers have had embryos tested for particular genetic conditions then chosen the one that will develop into a disease-free child.
Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), as it is called, raises deep ethical concerns. Like IVF today, the technology is likely to be expensive. Will only the wealthy create a class of children who are mentally and physically superior? Probably. After all, at the moment, we seem happy for the rich to give their children an extra boost with expensive private schools and large inheritances.
And is disease always that bad? A surprisingly large number of very creative people suffer manic depression, for example. Are there going to be fewer Schumanns and Edgar Allan Poes if PGD allows this mental disorder to be avoided? Maybe, but how many parents would choose to have a child suffering such a sickness on the off chance it may lead to genius.
The trouble with reproductive technology is that there are also deep ethical problems with not using it. If a parent has a choice between bringing a child into the world who is predisposed to cancer and one who's not, is it right to play Russian Roulette and not to deliberately choose the healthy one?I think Lee Silver's future is certain to happen.