The future of fertility

An alarming – because wholly plausible – article in the British science journal Nature looks ahead to the future of human reproduction.

As they might say on the starship Enterprise: it’s fertility, Jim, but not as we know it.

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Thirty years since the birth of the world’s first test-tube baby in Manchester, England, scientists are wondering what will be possible in the next 30.

They forecast an end to infertility altogether: any person from any age to 100 will be able to have children through an artificial womb, using embryos selected and genetically manipulated to ensure they are disease-free. The cost of IVF will be as low as $100, making it as available to poor people as well as the wealthy.

Cloned babies, say the scientists, are likely to become a reality, despite the ban that currently exists in most countries.  

Davor Solter, a developmental biologist at the Institute of Medical Biology in Singapore, predicts that “germ cells – sperm and eggs – will be derived from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells” extracted from skin cells, and then combined to make human embryos. Says  Solter:

I have no idea what kind of moral value or rights we would give to those embryos. We’ll probably go through the same agonising we did with IVF. It could be terrible to begin with, but then it’ll become a fact of life. Maybe 20 to 30 years from now we’ll read that someone made 20,000 embryos and studied their development, and we’ll decide it’s OK.

Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York, agrees that the technology “is going towards possible eradication of infertility altogether. With nuclear-transfer technology or cell modification, I think we’ll be able to generate sperm and eggs for anybody.”

Alan Trounson, director of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in San Francisco, explains how to have bargain-basement IVF. “If you remove all the expensive stuff and use low-cost drugs (such as clomiphene) and remove just one or two eggs, and only transfer one embryo, it can be done for less than US$100”.

Scott Gelfand, director of the Ethics Centre at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, thinks that in the future “we could have complete ectogenesis”, meaning that a baby could grow outside the body in an artificial uterus. Gelfland has thought this through:

I find it interesting – and scary. Even in terms of insurance: if it became economically competitive with other forms of gestation, insurers might compel a person to use it to avoid premature birth or foetal alcohol syndrome. It’s something that really needs to be talked about. Will it happen?

Apparently yes. After all, Dolly the cloned sheep (who was not, reassuringly, a very successful sheep) “was a complete surprise to everybody.”

Susannah Baruch, director of reproductive genetics at the Genetics and Public Policy Centre at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC, brings some welcome scepticism to bear on the possibility of designer babies. Apparently, no single gene predicts hair colour or height.

None of us is a perfect specimen and none of our embryos will be, either. I think you’ll end up with a lot of information but it’s less obvious how useful that information will be and how many parents will want it.

Maybe. But a baby screened for defects, possibly cloned, created by $100 IVF, gestated in an artificial womb, whose parents are geriatric, and who arrives in the world with a genetic map which highlights his propensity to illnesses – all this could be just a few decades away.

Let’s hope Catholic universities have given their ethicists tenure.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 2 months ago
By the dawn of the predicted Brave New World three or four decades from now, it's likely I won't be sentient. And I'll thank God for that.

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