Both the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and the 1997 science fiction movie “Gattaca” are classified as dystopias because they depict societies riddled with misery, tragedy, and a dehumanizing culture. Both attribute this decline in civilization to manipulations of human genetics and perversions of human reproduction. In Brave New World the traditional family structure has completely disintegrated and children are manufactured in “hatcheries” through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and gestation. In “Gattaca,” human beings are “enhanced” through genetic alterations, and those who do not have their DNA modified are seen as second-class citizens.
It is curious that genetically modified humans can be clearly seen as dangerous and undesirable in fiction but are celebrated as great achievements in current biomedical sciences. In the name of progress we are steadily marching forward to separate human procreation from human relationships and make it a laboratory procedure.
The floodgates of artificial reproductive technology were opened in Great Britain on July 25, 1978, with the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test tube” baby. In the ensuing years the use of IVF has fueled the growth of the multi-billion dollar fertility industry. The growing demand for ova to produce children for infertile couples has led to the widespread exploitation of young women as egg donors. Similar exploitation of poor women in countries like India has occurred as couples seek both egg donors to help conceive a child and a surrogate mother to gestate the child. Both women and children are dehumanized as human reproduction is commercialized.
The development of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) pushed artificial reproductive technology to a new level of genetic manipulation. It is no longer sufficient to conceive a child, but that child must now be “defect free.” Embryos are conceived through IVF, but before they are implanted in the uterus, their DNA is screened for chromosomal abnormalities. Embryos found to have undesirable genetics are discarded as medical waste with no regard for their humanity. These nascent human beings may be destroyed because they have chromosomal patterns linked to diseases like Down syndrome or Trisomy 18, or they may have the gene linked to familial cancers, or they may just be the wrong sex. Sex-selection abortions and sex-selection of embryos for implantation have led to serious gender imbalances in countries like China and India where sons are highly preferred over daughters.
If one can select against undesirable traits, the next logical leap is to choose embryos that have desirable features. With the help of a billion dollar investment from the Chinese government, the Chinese firm B.G.I. is working to make selecting the most intelligent embryo a viable option. It is not unreasonable to think that the selection for other traits such as physical attractiveness or athletic ability cannot be far behind.
The idea of building the perfect child is part of the philosophical principle of “procreative beneficence”. The term was coined by Oxford professor Julian Savulescu, and refers to a form of utilitarianism that asserts parents have a moral obligation to produce the best child possible. The utilitarian foundation of his reasoning only values those who produce a material benefit to others. The sick, the weak, and the disabled drain resources and are therefore disposable. Professor Savulescu freely admits this amounts to eugenics. He justifies it as providing the greatest good to most people. However, the “good” that he seeks only benefits the strong and powerful, and is obtained at the expense of the weak and vulnerable.
Current reproductive technology requires fully formed gametes, ova and sperm, to produce human embryos. What if that requirement was removed? The next big leap in artificial reproductive technology is in vitro gametogenesis. Adult or embryonic stem cells are manipulated in the laboratory to function as gametes. This removes the need for both male and female donors. Ova and sperm can be produced from stem cells from either a man or a woman. This would allow same-sex couples to have children that are genetically related to both partners. Theoretically, in vitro gametogenesis could allow a single person to use his own cells to produce two gametes and have a child with only one biological parent.
In a 2013 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics,Dr. Robert Sparrow of Monach University in Australia invokes Savulescu’s procreative beneficence and outlines the potential uses of in vitro gametogenesis. He suggests that this technology would allow the breeding of better humans. Embryos could be produced and screened for desirable traits. Instead of implanting these embryos for gestation, their stem cells could be harvested and used to make more gametes. These would be used to make another generation of embryos that are again screened and selected. This process could be repeated again and again until the desired refinement of the genome is achieved. The embryo who is ultimately selected for full gestation may actually be several generations removed from his last relative who was actually born. Dr. Sparrow points out that the use of in vitro gametogenesis could shorten the time span between successive generations to a matter of months instead of a matter of decades.
In vitro gametogenesis does not require naturally formed gametes, but it does require naturally formed DNA. Dr. Jef Boeke and his research team, working at both Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and New York University, are working to remove even that constraint. They have successfully constructed the first synthetic yeast chromosome. The yeast has a cell structure very similar to humans, so this work is seen as the first steps towards producing a completely synthetic human genome. While the research is in its infancy, the ultimate goal is mind-boggling. Children that have no biological parents could be produced from gametes made with synthetic DNA. Their DNA would be designed in the laboratory to meet the specifications of whoever is commissioning their creation.
Biomedical science has the potential to alleviate great human suffering. However, when it is applied without careful consideration of the consequences it harms far more than it heals. Artificial reproductive technology takes human procreation out of the constraints of natural law and into the realm of human folly. It takes remarkable hubris to suggest that the value of any human being is subject to the judgment of others. Every human being is imbued with an intrinsic dignity and inestimable worth. This value is independent of his stage of development, his state of health, his mental acuity, or his physical prowess. Pursuing lines of scientific inquiry and technological development that disregard human dignity is not progress. Instead, such endeavors pave the way to making the dystopia of fiction a reality.