IVF babies precursor to cut, paste baby engineering

When I read of three-parent in vitro fertilization (“IVF”), or any other form of reproductive technology, I shake my head. Initially, I wonder why, in a catastrophically warming world of 7 billion people, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent annually to manufacture more lives. Why isn’t this money used to develop sustainable energy and water treatment? What about preserving our remaining soil? How about dealing with malaria and other diseases that afflict millions? The answer is simple but unacceptable: more profit is made turning life into a commodity on behalf of the wealthy than is made serving the poor.

Domestically, medical insurance is extremely expensive, whether paid for by employers, employees or the government. Reprotech costs tens, and often hundreds of thousands per user. Making biological offspring a subsidized entitlement life means that others do without basic medical care.Beyond distributive concerns, reproductive technologies such as IVF and sperm and egg shopping present other, seldom-discussed problems.

Such commentators as Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben have observed that human genetic engineering will demoralize individuals and damage human community. They predict existential crises in reprotech offspring regarding their commercial origins and selected characteristics. The commentators add that democracy will become untenable when technology creates a biological elite. These warnings are, at once, an exaggeration and an understatement. They are an exaggeration because, although genomic research has enabled scientists to identify the effects of many DNA sequences, they are still years away from knowing which genes influence most traits. Further, gene manipulation efforts to date reveal that genes cannot often be simply cut and pasted.

For now, reprotech facilitates efforts to clear these technological hurdles. IVF uses the same lab equipment and provides cumulating knowledge and an oversupply of embryos needed to advance genetic engineering. IVF is to genetic engineering as nuclear power plants are to nuclear weapons proliferation.The commentators understate reprotech’s effects in another important way. The same consumerist ethic that animates IVF already allows egg and sperm shopping, which progressive commentator Andrew Kimbrell calls “technological adultery.” Sperm and egg shoppers prefer gametes from tall, conventionally attractive, formally educated sellers (not donors). The offspring already created maintain websites expressing resentment over their unknown parents and their commercial origins.

Children are no longer welcomed unconditionally. Consumer–driven reproduction enables genetically-based embryo selection for numerous life-long traits. Even their sex is often chosen and subject to prenatal quality control. As genomics advances, technicians will prenatally exclude not only the disabled, but the imperfect. Those with suboptimal height, below average intelligence or even big ears will be deselected. Consequently, society’s acceptance of, and mutual support and services for, the imperfect will shrink and the pressure to have “perfect” kids will intensify. Stanford Law Professor Hank Greely has predicted that, given these competitive pressures, within 50 years, 50% of Americans will be products of IVF.

Apart from creating a genetically privileged class, reprotech already affects the perception of other beings and basic social solidarity. Despite vast demographic, ideological, cultural and personal differences, until about thirty years ago, humans shared a common, unmanaged and mysterious origin in the union of a woman and a man. This is no longer universally true. A culture that allows everything, including human life, to be governed by utilitarianism, individual choice, engineering principles and commerce inevitably experiences profound alienation. As Waclav Havel wrote, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his life but that it bothers him less and less.”

Fundamentally, reprotech places the interests of the individual above those of the community. Using it is like building one’s home on the beach at Normandy or in Yosemite Valley. It pleases users and their family and friends, but costs the culture something far more precious –– namely, the notion of the sacred and the continuation of a society where genetic advantage cannot be purchased. Reprotech has generated many offspring, but with its effects on human perception and community, reprotech users should not expect the emerging world to resemble the one their parents grew up in, or to be much of a place to raise kids.

Mark Oshinskie, J.D. is a class of 1985 Rutgers University School of Law graduate.

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