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Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Michael Cook

In vitro eugenics could soon make Huxley’s Brave New World a reality.

Where would bioethics have been without Shakespeare? If he had never written “O brave new world, That has such people in’t” in The Tempest, perhaps Aldous Huxley would never have written Brave New World, his 1932 dystopian novel about genetically engineered babies gestated in industrial hatcheries. And perhaps conservatives like Leon Kass, George W. Bush’s chief bioethics adviser, would have lacked a thought-terminating cliché with which to rail against embryo experimentation.

At least that is the view of Kass’ critics, like Stephen Pinker, who sneered that he had a “disconcerting habit of treating fiction as fact”. However, the disconcerting thing is that the hoary old “brave new world” chestnut is putting down roots and sprouting leaves.

An Australian bioethicist is “calling for a vigorous debate” – code words for “when can we start working on this stuff?” – on “in vitro eugenics”, which is remarkably similar to the “Bokanovsky process” in Huxley’s novel.

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Dr Robert Sparrow of Monash University sets out a blueprint for making better humans. His starting point is current research into the creation of sperm and eggs from stem cells. Mice have already been produced with “artificial” gametes, and the production of humans may not be too far away. Until now, the focus has been creating gametes for the infertile or for enabling homosexual males to produce eggs or homosexual women to produce sperm.

The production of embryos using sperm and eggs generated with stem cells rather than through sex would also be useful in studying genetic diseases and for drug testing, but Sparrow points out that it would be absolutely tiptop for eugenics. Whole generations of people could be created in Petri dishes, eliminating unsatisfactory genes in the quest for better human beings. “In effect,” he writes enthusiastically, “scientists will be able to breed human beings with the same (or greater) degree of sophistication with which we currently breed plants and animals”.

He calculates that two to three generations of human beings could be produced in a single year – rather than the 60 or so years that the pace of natural reproduction requires. “An in vitro breeding programme of this sort would give future eugenicists a power undreamed of by governments and would-be genetic reformers of the past. In a 10-year research programme, scientists might produce 20–30 generations of human beings in vitro – enough to achieve significant changes in genotype. Advances in cell culture technology and in the science of gameto­genesis might increase this figure still further. Obviously, the more generations it is possible to proceed through each year, the more powerful this technology will become.”

What about the ethics of this development? Sparrow acknowledges that the people who result from the procedure would be “orphaned at conception”. In fact, they would enter the world without grandparents, or great-grandparents, or even great-great-grandparents.

However, Sparrow is persuaded that “adequate love and care from their social parents is sufficient to allow children to flourish socially and psychologically”. Safety is definitely an issue, of course, because researchers would be navigating unknown waters in embryology. However, Sparrow points out that this was also true of IVF and ICSI. “Thus, in vitro eugenics would not raise any issues we have not confronted before.”

The development of in vitro eugenics will certainly involve a prodigal waste of human embryos, which makes it politically impossible at the moment. However Sparrow also predicts that opposition will melt away as soon people realise that the technique is essential to create gametes for the infertile. “Thus, it seems likely that, by the time in vitro eugenics becomes possible, any prohibition on the creation of embryos for research purposes will have already been rescinded.”

Sparrow’s blueprint for a brave new world is quite plausible. A number of laboratories are already investigating techniques for creating artificial gametes. It is only a question of time before it becomes a clinical tool.

His observations on the politics of it are quite astute as well. Vehement opposition to IVF melted away like summer snow as soon as pictures of Louise Brown appeared on the cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly. Tear-jerking narratives about people who became parents after years of sterility would probably trump ethical misgivings.

The only thing that Huxley seems to have got wrong, then, was the economics of eugenics. Instead of a totalitarian state-run eugenics, Sparrow’s brave new world will market a kinder, gentler privatised eugenics.

If only Shakespeare hadn’t written The Tempest.

Michael Cook is editor of the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.