Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Sex and babies - a parting of the ways

Over the last few years I have been routinely creeped out by the fact any domestic animal of value pretty much has a sex life from hell. Thanks to the widespread adoption of artificial insemination (AI), animals from terriers to standardbred horses are reproduced in with clinical precision and very little fun, apparently.

Perhaps it's being one of generation forced to read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, but my discomfort with this trend was only partly offset by the admittedly large benefits in costs and efficiency. It seemed to me to presage a day when humans themselves chose to procreate via technology rather than passion.

That day is now much closer, I believe.

Scientists in Britain have found a way to test embryos for a myriad of genetic problems, allowing parents-to-be a chance to avoid a wide range of health problems or tendencies. The larger concern with this idea has been the seemingly inevitable ability to similarly select for height, or IQ, or even the talent to dance.

These new choices are fraught with moral questions, and I believe we will be hearing much, much more about those very soon. Most of these cries will center on the issue of "designer babies".

Professor Braude is resolute on the ethical question of designer babies.

"It is a step to designer babies for those people who've got genetic disease," he said.

"And what we're designing, if you like, or selecting for, is a baby that's not going to die.

There are also questions about what your health insurance company will have to say about NOT testing, so they won't be on the hook for genetically influenced problems - the list of which grows every day.

The more troublesome consequence for me is these tests, and the ability to select, are available only for embryos outside the womb.

As more couples use in vitro fertilization (IVF), the practice has become safer, cheaper, and now - with tests such as this - superior in some ways to the "old method" used by humans for several million years.

Just like the jump in Cesarean section births to avoid any hint of complication during normal delivery, I believe risk-averse parents will opt for IVF to allow a screening process before implanting the embryo. I'm not sure I blame them.

But it will finally and completely separate sex - that wildly popular athletic entertainment - from reproduction. It will also make the answer to "Mommy, where do babies come from?" even trickier.

We are irrationally, hysterically risk-averse where our children are involved. Even thunderous preaching from religionists opposed to this sort of science will fall on disobedient ears, I am convinced.

And in the end, we will be a little less human, and a little more like the animals we keep.

No comments: