In 1997, the film Gattaca warned of a future in which emerging reproductive technologies led to eugenics and genetic discrimination. For Stanford law professor and bioethicist Hank Greely, our future might not be quite so bleak, but the technology involved may be closer than we think. Greely’s new book, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, predicts that parents in developed countries will decide to bare children based on genetics rather than by chance, as they select designer babies from petri dishes.
Greely’s argument pivots on two advances in biomedicine: whole-genome sequencing and preimplantation genetic diagnosis. The former allows geneticists to separate the pieces to the puzzle of our DNA. The latter allows them to profile embryos prior to implantation and fertilization in an effort prevent genetic disease.
In an interview with National Public Radio’s Michael Kransy, Greely describes turning skin cells into any other kind of cell, such as eggs or sperm, in a process that advances in vitro fertilization.
“I would be careful to set the time frame at 20 to 40 years. I think we’ll actually see a world where most babies born to people with good health coverage will be conceived in the lab,” he said. “People will make about a hundred embryos, each will have its whole genome tested, and the parents will be [asked … “Tell] us what you want to know, and then tell us what embryo you want.”
The obvious negative effects of such methods are depicted in Gattaca and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But Greely thinks the matter is more complicated than that. “Eugenics is a slippery word; it means many thing to different people,” he said. “To some, it’s state-enforced reproductive control … To some, it’s any kind of reproductive choices, but those are different things.” Though both viewpoints have their champions and opposition, Greely sees the issue of coercion as far more sensitive than selection.
The positive effects, however, may include dramatically reduced health care costs. “If it costs say, $10,000, to start a baby this way, 100 babies is a million dollars,” Greely said. “If you avoid the birth of one baby with a serious genetic disease, you’ve saved $3 [million to] $5 million.”