An English Peer and fertility expert has warned of the growing danger of eugenics in the flourishing artificial procreation industry. Lord Robert Winston, himself a pioneer in the use and “genetic screening” of embryos, has long been a voice of caution, warning successive governments that current legal restrictions are insufficient to regulate, or even keep pace with the rapid growth of the industry.
Lord Winston, speaking at a lecture at the meeting of the Society for Reproduction and Fertility (SRF) at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, warned that the increasing use of techniques to genetically manipulate embryos could lead to a new form of eugenics in which parents modify their children to enhance “desirable characteristics” like beauty or intelligence.
Winston, a professor of science and society at Imperial College London, told the Scotsman newspaper that the issue of the “commercialisation of reproductive medicine,” is “not always well controlled by governments.”
In his Roslin Institute lecture, he argued that “the regulatory framework that we have in this country is almost completely pointless.”
“I think that the HFEA [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority] is not capable of regulating either the commercial aspects of reproductive technologies or the risks that people who undergo these technologies really run.”
Technology already exists to modify “the genomics of individuals by gene transfer and genetic meddling,” he said. “We may find that people will want to modify their children, enhance their intelligence, their strength and their beauty and all the other so-called desirable characteristics.”
“That is going to become an increasing risk as a market. That will be a form of eugenics which will actually have all sorts of serious implications for developed societies.”
Lord Winston said the technology is already being developed that can alter the intelligence and memory capacity of mice and that it is only a matter of time before it is applied to human embryos. These techniques, he said, do not necessarily require the use of IVF or other methods of artificial reproduction.
“There are various dangers of this, some of which are practical dangers to the actual child you produce. In future it is almost certainly true we will be able to make these modifications to humans, possibly in the very near future.”
Winston’s comments are being echoed, albeit with greater enthusiasm, by Dr. Robert Sparrow, of Monash University in Australia, who wrote last year in the Journal of Medical Ethics that the time has come to open a debate on “in vitro eugenics”. Sparrow cited the creation of functioning gametes, sperm and “eggs” from undifferentiated stem cells, that have already been used to create mice in the lab. Researchers have suggested that such techniques could be applied to humans to treat infertility.
Dr. Sparrow, who is broadly in favour of the idea, suggested that artificial gametes could be used to speed up the rate at which human generations turn over, producing two or three generations of improved human beings, free of “unsatisfactory genes,” in a single year.
“In effect,” he writes, “scientists will be able to breed human beings with the same (or greater) degree of sophistication with which we currently breed plants and animals.”
Such a breeding program, he said, “would give future eugenicists a power undreamed of by governments and would-be genetic reformers of the past.”
In ten years, scientists could produce 20 to 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 [the generation of gametes] 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.”
As early as 2003, Lord Winston was warning legislators that the monetary motive is driving the IVF industry to move forward with procedures that had not been adequately tested and that the commercial aspect of fertility techniques were being emphasized over objective clinical research. In 2005, Winston was speaking against the clinical use of embryonic stem cells, warning that their genetic instability would likely make it impossible for them to be effective in treatments of diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s.