Although these days it’s primarily a form of highly enjoyable exercise – and a pair-bonding mechanism – sex is also fairly useful when it comes to procreating, if you hadn’t already noticed. If you want to extend your family tree, this is by far the most effective method available to us.
According to the director of the Stanford Law School’s Center for Law and the Biosciences, however, in 20 to 30 years this method of baby-making will be seen as quite redundant. Professor Hank Greely asserted a few days ago at the Aspen Ideas Festival that selecting embryos to be grown in a laboratory setting will not only be far more common, but – somehow – even cheaper that doing it the analog way.
The process, at least in America, will be as follows. First, embryos will be cultured from the DNA of both parents, which will then be inspected by medical professionals and the potential parents. The embryos will be screened for genetic diseases or gene variants that would increase the baby’s chance of contracting a disease.
It’s also possible that cosmetic features, including hair and eye color, could also be selected. Genes that are linked to higher cognitive abilities could even be selected, or perhaps spliced in. Any editing will be performed by CRISPR – the ultra-precise gene-editing technique currently in use around the world in medical trials – or whatever its technological successor will be.
This isn’t the first time this idea has been suggested, but whenever it rears its head, it understandably brings with it ethical concerns. Although few would argue with removing genetic diseases from a baby’s genome, the idea of customizing cosmetic features, along with changes to the structure of the brain, err slightly closer to the field of eugenics than others.
For his part, Greely merely brushes over these concerns, in that they will be dealt with at the time. The tone of his comments suggests that he’s only saying that such a process of embryo selection and customization is inevitable.
“This is not designer babies or super babies,” Greely said. “This is selecting embryos. You take two people, all you can get out of a baby is what those two people have.”
“People, particularly where I live in Silicon Valley, will want to do it to get their perfect egg.”
When it comes to the cost, an interesting issue arises. Surely this expensive process would only be available to rich elites, who could essentially wield enormous genetic control over the human race?
Greely’s response to this was to say that the entire process will be free for all to use. This would prevent inequality at this level from being endemic – even if richer nations like China and the US would be able to access this process first.
His argument that the process of embryo selection being cheaper than producing babies the old-fashioned way stems from the cost of healthcare post-birth. If it takes $10,000 to make a baby using this new method – one free from genetic diseases – then it could be far cheaper than caring for newborns that have these afflictions.
It’s an interesting concept, and perhaps surprising that such a procedure will be just a handful of decades away. Still, when you look at the incredible advances made in the field of CRISPR in the last few years, it seems less surprising. Scientific advancements, particularly in the biomedical field, often appear exponentially.
The future is rushing towards us, and at some point, complex moral and ethical decisions will have to be made that could change the course of history. No pressure then.