"In vitro eugenics" is coming, predicts Australian bioethicist

Michael Cook
6 Apr 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Taking a peek into the future, an Australian bioethicist says that it will be possible to use stem cell technology to breed better humans in a Petri dish. Robert Sparrow, of Monash University, writes in the Journal of Medical Ethics that it is not too early to launch a debate about what he calls "in vitro eugenics".

His starting point is 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. Up to now, reports of this research have highlighted its potential for creating gametes for infertile men and women or for allowing 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 Dr Sparrow points out that it would be splendid for eugenics. 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? Dr Sparrow set himself the task of describing the opportunities and obstacles that this technology would face, rather than a thorough ethical critique. However, he does mention a number of ethical considerations. On the plus side, it would be possible to eugenically enhance people without having to ask people to choose particular partners or to gestate numerous experimental embryos.

On the minus side, the people who result from the procedure would be "orphaned at conception". With each generation in the Petri dish, they would be more distant from their forebears. However, Dr 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, Dr 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."