Building a Better Baby
Freezing eggs opens the door to a future where every birth could be genetically engineered.
By Jamie MetzlAuthor of GENESIS CODE: A Thriller of the Near Future
Recent reports of Apple and Facebook now offering to cover the costs of their female employees extracting and freezing their eggs has touched off a national debate. Proponents have said this new perk expands options for women and helps them balance career and life goals. Others have argued it gives women the wrong message about work-life balance and binds them even more intimately to companies primarily interested in their unimpeded work product. But while the debate over egg freezing is important, it misses the bigger point. In the not-distant future, all advantaged women will freeze their eggs in their twenties, and an ever increasing number of babies will be born through a process involving both in vitro fertilization and genetic selection. This revolution will have huge implications for our societies and our species, but we are hardly talking about it.
In labs and clinics around the world, doctors are already using the preimplantation genetic diagnosis process to extract a single cell from and genetically screen each of the five day old embryos in IVF prior to implantation in the mother. Currently, the preimplantation genetic diagnosis process is used to screen for single gene abnormalities like cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease and sickle cell anemia and, in more limited cases, gender. Each one of the cells extracted in that process, however, carries the full genome. As our ability to understand the genome continues its exponential growth, it is inevitable that parents will be able to choose from thousands of genetic predispositions for each embryo, not just for single gene variations like eye color, but, over time, for more polygenic traits including intelligence, athleticism, robustness and more. If they have fifteen embryos to choose from in IVF, for example, they will be able to choose which of their natural offspring to implant based on their particular value system.
After that, it is extremely likely that scientists will be able to generate eggs from stem cells, making human eggs a potentially unlimited resource (as human sperm already is). At this point, instead of choosing from among ten or twenty of their own embryos, parents would be able to choose from among hundreds or thousands, whatever they can afford. Beyond that, genetic engineering to add DNA from sources other than the two parents will be our reality.
The idea of turning the most beautiful part of the human experience over to scientists will be terrifying for many and, no doubt, constituencies will emerge calling for restrictions or an outright ban. These restrictions might even work in some jurisdictions. But governments and insurance providers will certainly have a strong incentive to support genetic screening, if it proves safe, because the cost of screening will almost certainly be less than the cost of treating what will then be seen as avoidable genetic abnormalities.
Whatever people’s reservations, competition within and between societies will drive this technology and its application forward. Within societies, parents will not want their children to be disadvantaged once the science is deemed safe. Between societies, different attitudes and world views will lead to different rates of technology adoption. Even if Christian-majority countries like the United States, for example, might someday join the Vatican and others pushing for restrictions, other countries such as China and Korea (whose worldview is based less on the concept of a divine plan) may well continue to be more comfortable moving forward with human genetic selection and engineering, as some polling data has shown. And even if all countries opt out, which is unlikely based on current behavior, motivated individuals and non-state actors will have full access to this technology.
With whatever mix of catalysts and first movers, it is almost impossible to believe that our species, which has embraced every new technology – from explosives to nuclear energy to anabolic steroids to plastic surgery and beyond – promising to improve our lives but also carrying potential downsides, would forgo chasing advances in a technology that has the potential to eradicate terrible diseases, improve our health and increase our life spans.
Given the emotional charge of these issues, and the fact that heritable genetic manipulations will have the potential to spread across populations through reproduction, some people and countries will likely become hostile if others elsewhere are changing the human genetic code in a manner that will impact them. Would countries banning heritable genetic manipulations screen people for such mutations at their borders or make it a crime for their citizens to procreate with them? What might some countries do to try to stop others from altering the human genome in ways likely to drift into their own populations?
While these scenarios may seem far off to some – and there are still serious scientific hurdles to be overcome – our altered reproductive future is approaching far faster than most people think.
Because the science is moving forward more quickly than our consciousness, it is critical that we begin a national and global conversation on the ethical and national security implications of the genetics revolution and start thinking about what a preliminary global regulatory framework that both supports important research and prevents the worst abuses might look like.
Egg freezing is a first step in a process that will transform our concepts of nature, reproduction and genetic choice. We owe ourselves and our progeny, a much broader and deeper conversation about our species’ reproductive future.
Jamie Metzl is with a global investment firm and is a nonresident Senior Fellow for Technology and National Security of the Atlantic Council and author of the 2014 novel Genesis Code. He served in the National Security Council and U.S. State Department during the Clinton administration. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl. This editorial is partly derived from his October 2014 Foreign Affairs article, “The Genetic Epidemic.”