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Scan My Embryo’s Barcode

By Michael Cook

IVF “mix-ups” could be avoided by barcoding embryos, but at what point is a new life reduced to a manufactured product?

As a child in a small American town I used to visit a tobacco shop to buy my sweets. It was hot one summer’s day, and the quiet man behind the counter with a thick Polish accent had rolled up his sleeves. I remember seeing a number tattooed on his inner forearm. Tattoos weren’t fashion statements then, and the only ones I had seen were the anchors on the bulging forearms of Popeye.

A six-digit number was an odd choice for a tattoo, but I didn’t ask him about it. I was more interested in my sweets.

Perhaps I should have. Perhaps I would have learned a few things about how people can be reduced to commodities.

All these years later, that tattoo spells out the theory and practice of dehumanisation for me better than any textbook. Like branding in the ancient world, those blurry blue digits documented a human being’s transformation into a cheap, disposable commodity.

It was with this memory in mind that I read an article in the journal Human Reproduction.

Researchers at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain have come up with an “exciting” and “novel” system for tracking embryos and eggs in IVF clinics – essentially microscopic tattoos. They have successfully attached several bio­functionalised polysilicon barcodes to the outer surface of the egg. The labels are injected into a space between the cell wall and the zona pellucida, a membrane that surrounds an egg. During normal reproduction, a fertilised embryo will shed this outer layer along with the barcodes.

Here is their enthusiastic description of the process:

The tagging system is simple, safe and highly efficient, allowing the identification of human oocytes [eggs] and embryos during the various steps of an ART [assisted reproduction technology] cycle. In a clinical setting, each patient would be assigned a specific barcode number, and all her oocytes/embryos would be tagged with this same barcode number. The tags would accompany the embryos throughout the whole ART procedure and until hatching, so that embryos will be free of the barcodes for implantation. The introduction of this direct tagging system in fertility clinics would be straightforward, as no special or expensive equipment is needed, and would surely minimize the occurrence of mix-ups.

For an IVF clinic, a “mix-up” is the reproductive equivalent of the Boxing Day tsunami. Don’t even think about it. But unfortunately there is always a risk of mixing up eggs and sperm or of implanting the wrong embryos. How often this happens no one knows, but it happens. And if it become public, it can shred a clinic’s reputation.

In 2009 an Ohio woman, Carolyn Savage, found that she was pregnant with the child of another couple. She wrote a book about her experience, Inconceivable.

Publicity like this rattles potential clients. How can they be sure that the baby they are cuddling is really theirs? Short of a DNA test, they can’t be. And IVF clinics don’t offer DNA tests as part of their service. Hence the barcodes.

Bioethicists who defend the idea point out that mistakes can be very damaging for the parents. Bioethicist Art Caplan says: “When you’re talking about mismatch, those kinds of errors are psychologically and emotionally devastating… So I think this is a terrific idea to reduce those difficulties.”

In a pragmatic sense, it may be terrifically efficient. But it represents another small wedge in the growing gap between love and reproduction. If IVF technicians are sifting through a batch of embryos and eliminating the ones that are “defective” or surplus, aren’t loving parents becoming more and more like discerning customers? Sure, couples will cherish a barcoded child conceived in a Petri dish, but the intrusion of technology into the process of procreation gives their love a slightly different hue.

The English poet W.H. Auden satirised the reduction of people to numbers in his poem “The Unknown Citizen”, who is known only as JS/07 M 378:

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

Treating embryos like cereal packets in the reproductive supermarket may seem like a sensible step forward, but something within me shrinks from the accelerating pace of bureaucratising love.

Barcoding embryos is another version of the number tattooed on the forearm of the Polish shopkeeper. Loving parents give a gestating child a name, not a barcode. Despite all the promotional photos of glowing mums and gurgling babies, IVF is becoming less like love and more like manufacturing.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics newsletter BioEdge.