Does sex have a future?

Thirty years ago next week the world’s first IVF baby was born in Britain. That was a whole generation ago. Now married, Louise Brown has a naturally-conceived child of her own and 4 million more babies have been born through IVF. So July 25, 1978 was a landmark day in our relationship with technology: the natural process of creating life through love (ideally, at least) was challenged by one which assembled life for a profit. From a controversial solution to infertility, in vitro fertilisation swiftly grew into an industry of its own and opened the door to other even more controversial developments, like genetic engineering and stem cell research.

To mark the occasion, in its current issue (July 17) the world’s leading science journal, Nature, asked experts to forecast what reproductive technology will look like in another 30 years. Both the predictions and Nature’s own response make fascinating reading. IVF, it turns out, was just the beginning. Even more dramatic bioethical challenges lie ahead.

Ironically, the most significant of these drew the curtain on another ethical debate. The recent emergence of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) – cells which have all the malleability of embryonic stem cells but which are created without destroying embryos – spells the end of embryonic stem cell research as an avenue for miracle cures for dread diseases. Many of the world's top stem cell scientists are abandoning it and turning to the new technique. 

However, as iPS cells can theoretically morph into any cell in the body, it is theoretically possible to transform them into “artificial” sperm and eggs. This means that anyone can be the progenitor (the words mother and father hardly seem appropriate) of a child – whether they are six months old or 100 years old. Furthermore, eggs and sperm will no longer be in short supply. Lab technicians will be able to make thousands of them. Instead of being conceived and born in love, human life will become a manufactured artefact. 

“They would become objects and would be used as objects,” says Davor Solter, of the Institute of Medical Biology in Singapore. “I have no idea what kind of moral value or rights we would give to those embryos. We'll probably go through the same agonizing we did with IVF. It could be terrible to begin with, but then it'll become a fact of life. Maybe 20–30 years from now we'll read in newspapers that someone made 20,000 embryos and studied their development, and we'll decide it's OK.”

Artificial wombs are another possibility, some scientists believe. “You could have as many or as few progeny as you want,” muses Dr Solter. However, this could be a double-edged sword. As IVF techniques improve and as the age of viability of unborn children falls, it may be possible to keep aborted babies alive, floating in vats and tethered to artificial placentas. It might even become unlawful not to do it. Unsettling, to say the least.

Rapid improvements in genetic screening and in knowledge of the human genome mean that designer babies will be possible. Parents could choose embryos to give them their best chance for a healthy and successful life. The sheer complexity of making such choices will be daunting for parents. “True, with thousands of genetic risk variants contributing to multiple different conditions, no embryo will have the perfect genetic future,” observes Nature. “But these techniques could allow parents to create a top-five wish-list of the characteristics they most want for their... and choose the embryo most likely to meet those criteria.”

All these developments are speculative, of course. Years of work at the lab bench are needed to make them a reality. Then they have to be offered at a commercially sustainable price. And no one knows what products will attract consumers. Even so, one thing is absolutely certain. These innovations would commodify human life and create human beings who have no natural links to other human beings. The social consequences will be immense.

What about the ethics of these “transformative technologies”? Amazingly, the best the mouthpiece for world science can do is stammer “Duh, dunno”. Fearless when it comes to tongue-lashing governments over climate change, shrinking research budgets, or high school biology texts which teach intelligent design, Nature makes a spineless, ethically neutral fudge when it deals with the future of sex. “Nothing is sacred in human biology — and researchers should ensure that nothing is diminished about human reproduction by starting it in the lab”.

But if nothing is sacred, what is the problem with a “diminished” approach to procreation?

Basically Nature is afraid to express an opinion. To greet the long-awaited arrival of Brave New World with a brass band would be madness. To say that commercial manipulation of human reproduction is dangerous, or even unethical, would mean restricting the sacred right of scientists to do research. So Nature sits on the fence. To paraphrase an old chestnut of motivational talks, "There are three types of journals in the world, those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what’s happening!"

This is not the posture that the world’s leading science journal has adopted about climate change, for instance. For years Nature has loudly denounced the “transformative technologies” of carbon-emitting industries because they will blight future generations. It sees this as a major ethical issue. Is the coming revolution in human reproduction any less dangerous? Nature is abdicating its responsibility to future generations by refusing to question the new technologies and by not using its influence to call for strict regulation. But perhaps that is to be expected. If you refuse to see humanity in an embryo, perhaps you lose something of your own humanity -- your capacity for ethical discernment.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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