The Future of IVF: Designer Babies and Ultimate Soldiers

Should parents really be able to pick the "best" embryos?

When Edward Snowden alerted the world to the United States government’s massive PRISM surveillance program, the subsequent ride up the bestseller lists for George Orwell’s 1984 was a no-brainer. When life imitates dystopia so neatly, it’s natural to hop a ride on the freak-out train.

On Monday, a story broke that hearkens to another classic in the dark-future canon, when The Guardian reported that the baby Philadelphia couple David Levy and Marybeth Scheidts had in May was the product of a new in vitro fertilization technique that allows doctors to map the genomes of five-day-old embryos to determine which will have the best chance coming to term.

“It can’t make embryos better than they were in the beginning,” Oxford University fertility specialist Dagan Wells told The Guardian, “but it can guide us to the best ones.”

On one hand, this is absolutely fantastic news for couples struggling to conceive. One of the issues with IVF, says Wells, is that many of the embryos possess lethal genetic abnormalities that prevent them from developing in the womb. Eliminating the genetic non-starters, so to speak, could spare couples the pain of miscarriage and the high costs continued treatments.

On the other hand, well, this is more or less the premise of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (another tome that received the Snowden bump): a society where natural reproduction is eliminated and children are “decanted” — divided into castes based on fetuses’ genetic makeup, with lower castes chemically altered to stunt growth or intelligence in order to fulfill roles predetermined by the authoritarian World State.

I know what you’re thinking: “This guy’s tinfoil hat is on way too tight.” But consider what the venerable MIT Technology Review had to say about the technology just three months ago in its feature on 2013’s 10 breakthrough technologies, asking “Do you really want to know the genetic destiny of your unborn child?”:

“What [California startup] Verinata does have is technology that can do something as ethically fraught as it is inevitable: sequence the DNA of a human fetus before birth.”

As is the nature of things, the cost of genetic sequencing will go down and become available not just to couples seeking fertility solutions.

But are there downsides to picking your progeny the same way you would order your gelato?

It may sound as wackadoodle as George W. Bush coming out against “human-animal hybrids” in his tour de force 2006 State of the Union, but doesn’t mapping the genomes of embryos open to door to things like designer babies (and you thought celebrities gave their kids weird names), ultimate soldiers and the systematic eradication of gingers?

There are, to be sure, upsides as well, such as isolating predispositions to certain diseases — or “curing” them by preventing their most likely sufferers from ever existing. But will the ability to literally pick and choose the kinds of people who get to exist lead some among us down the same dark alleys?

This whole choosing “the best ones,” as Oxford’s Dagan Wells put it, is a slippery slope, if nothing else certain can be said about it. And a lot will depend on how we define “the best ones.” Science, as Patton Oswalt once observed, is “all about coulda, not shoulda,” and thus presents us with a miasma of conundrums and unintended consequences.

It’ll be on ethicists and policy makers, but ultimately us, to decide how far is too far.

And right now, seems way too early to see where that point is. Which is why I’m gonna start re-reading my Huxley.