Early in the 1932 classic, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley conjures a future in which embryos are created through a mass IVF-type process, genetically engineered to possess desired traits, artificially gestated, after which, the babies are “decanted” at a “hatchery.” The point of the enterprise, readers learn early-on, is to guarantee social stability and prevent any challenge to the ruling order.
Huxley wrote the book as a dire warning. But we aren’t paying heed. In our own impending brave new world, profit is the accelerant driving the dehumanization of procreation. “Big Fertility” (a term popularized by my friend Jennifer Lahl, head of the Center for Bioethics and Culture) already makes billions creating masses of embryos via increasingly sophisticated IVF techniques — complete with quality control, including rudimentary eugenics applications — and sometimes deploying surrogate mothers (dehumanized in industry parlance as “gestational carriers”) to birth the babies for those who can’t or don’t wish to do it themselves. That isn’t “decanting,” but it sure is a giant step in that direction.
We may now be on the verge of adding germline engineering to the menu of available reproductive services, that will, for a price, offer to edit “desired” genetic characteristics into embryos — both health-related and enhancements — that will pass down the generations. Indeed, the first germline altered babies were born in China six months ago — setting off a firestorm of controversy (now well banked because much of it was faux) but still landing the scientist who performed the procedure, He Jiankui, in prison (as if Chinese authorities didn’t know what he was up to all along).
As some in the science community expressed outrage at JK (as he is known) — not, in my opinion, over what was done, but when — a business director of a Dubai fertility clinic emailed the scientist to congratulate the genetic engineer for the “achievement of the first gene-edited baby delivered by your technique.” The email then got the real point of the communication: The clinic wanted to send its embryologist to China to learn the technique so genetic engineering could added to its menu of available services. (JK shared the email with Stanford bioethicist William Hurlbut — who disclosed it publicly at a recent biotechnology symposium.)
The alacrity with which the Dubai clinic reacted to the birth of a genetically engineered baby –before its safety has been determined, much less its moral propriety fully explored — illustrates that greed and profit will be the accelerant that drives genetic engineering into widespread deployment. It will, that is, unless stringent and legally enforceable regulations prevent the biotech wildcatters from taking control.
But that isn’t happening. There has been a lot of talk, but no effective action. Early calls for an international moratorium have not been agreed to. Indeed, some in the biotech and science communities resist any regulatory actions that would take parameters of the research out the hands of scientists. Never mind that these experts could have financial and professional conflicts of interest in determining how to proceed. In this ideological view, only scientists can determine what is ethical in science.
Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to repeal a relatively weak impediment (akin to the Hyde Amendment) first enacted in 2016 that prevents the FDA from approving a clinical application “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification.”
No! This technology is too powerful and its potential impact too encompassing to leave to the biotech sector and others with a vested interest. By their inaction in cooperating with the promulgation of binding international laws, by their refusal or inability to enact and enforce a meaningful moratorium on genetically engineering human gametes and embryos, “the scientists“” and their business partners have already proved they can’t be trusted to exercise the required self-restraint.
As Hurlbut said at the symposium, “If you call JK a rogue scientist who did this by himself, you miss the truth, and then you fail to see what’s wrong with the current structure for the global governance of science.”
Alas, President Trump has shown zero interest in engaging this crucial issue. That is an abdication of responsibility. The time has come to lead! Otherwise, the profiteers will determine our biotechnological future based on what is best for them, with little regard for ethics or, for that matter, what will improve the lives of — and reduce the risks for — all of us and our posterity.