Reproductive medicine’s partnership with medical genetics may change the way we birth future generations and how we look at our power to conceive. Combined, they could purify our children of disease and genetic mutations before they’re even born. But with the ability to remove serious diseases from family lines, there also comes an increasing ethical burden to society: Are we playing the creator?

“This field is fraught with controversy, not least of all because it involves the creation and selective destruction of human embryos,” Dr. Joel Shuman, a bioethics and theology professor at King’s College, told Medical Daily. “The whole question of control, and of how much we should have and properly exert over the circumstances of our existence, is at the very heart of this matter.”

Advancements In Reproductive Bioengineering

Every human has a set of genes unique to themselves. There are at least 4,300 different genetic diseases that are typically the result of a single gene mutation. The idea of completely erasing the possibility and threat of a baby being born with any disease is a parent’s dream, especially if a serious disease runs in the family. Only three percent of humans are born with genetic diseases; if parents don’t want to take a chance, they can breed the gene out. All they need is a team of geneticists and the funds to run the screening process.

“What are the long-term effects?” Shuman asks. “It becomes increasingly difficult for a society that’s so medically able and technologically advanced to decide where to draw the line. What differentiates therapy from enhancement and what constitutes for a normal human development? A big part of this is about what children are and what they mean to our society. Consumer goods manufactured to exact measures.”

Places like Genesis Genetics, where pre-implantation genetic diagnosis first started, can check embryos for a shopping list of diseases. Cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, colon cancer, and breast cancer, are screened regularly. Each year, 3,000 worrisome couples test one cell from their sperm and egg for an estimated $16,000. Scientists sift through the six billion letters of the DNA to find that one threatening typo that may cause disease in their unborn child.

There are so many medical conditions and diseases that the associations between certain genes become much less clear. What else are we breeding out of future generations that are controlled or affected by the genes that are being removed? It seems like a game of trial-and-error, and the technology has only been around since 2010.

“Arguably that’s what we do when we naturally have children,” Shuman says. “Our opposable thumbs and intelligence give us the ability to manipulate our existence. This seems to be what gives us our humanness. Human capacities should be exercised in limits.”

Another company is testing those limits. GenePeeks takes the separate genes of two biological parents before conception and analyzes the thousands of potential genetic combinations for mutations that could affect the baby’s future health. They can predict the likelihood of more than 500 genetic conditions, but also take it one step further by predicting eye color, widow’s peak, and intelligence. Currently, GenePeeks is creating digital babies to show parents the likelihood of disease, and there are no governing bodies stopping them from divulging the fine details of the baby as well.

“Right now the gate is left largely unattended,” Shuman says. “One of the questions with this science is important — what are the limits of our knowledge?” Finding an egg donor is very similar. High SAT scores, blond, blue-eyed, 5-foot-10, and naturally altruistic are just some of the requests from hopeful parents seeking egg donors. Or, what about choosing the partner we’ll breed with? Do we want them to be intelligent, attractive, strong, and kind? We’re selective breeding every day, but where do we draw the line when technology gives us the ability to go beyond our natural selection?

First World Problems

“We’re talking very much about a new kind of genetics. These are really first world problems,” Shuman said. “We don’t even have the political will to provide health care to every citizen in this country, let alone manage how we’re going to implement these technologies.”

A world, in which the upper class has a disease free bloodline, while the lower class throws the dice every time it reproduces, would create a new type of class hierarchy. Those who could afford to have their unborn babies screened for cancers and chronic diseases would have the bad gene deleted and a baby born perfectly healthy. However, a new type of survival of the fittest would emerge from our technologically advanced society. Today, we don’t even provide basic health care to the lower class. It is highly unlikely every person in society would receive a genome scan free of cost.

“You could argue we’re on a trajectory toward creating a hierarchy in reproductive medicine,” Shuman said. “The only people who will be able to afford these technologies will be the middle and upper class. While the lower class will reproduce the old-fashioned way.”

“Three Generations Of Imbeciles Are Enough”

History has a frightening way of repeating itself. In the 1927 Buck vs. Bell trial, the United States Supreme Court decided eugenic sterilization was necessary for people found to be “genetically unfit” for society. The law permitted mental hospitals and institutions to sterilize based on the belief that it was for the greater good — they were particularly biased toward the lower class. In 30 states, approximately 65,000 Americans were sterilized without their consent or the consent of a family member.

The plaintiff, Carrie Buck, was committed to an institution after being raped and giving birth to a daughter, who she named Vivian. With her mother already committed under the antiquated medical term, “feeble minded,” the Court fought to sterilize Carrie and her 7-month-old daughter. She grew into a straight-A honor roll student, but eventually died of the measles. The Court’s decision to sterilize was delivered along with the infamous phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Will scientists one day decide to breed out the autism gene before it pollutes the rest of the population? They’re coming closer each day to discovering the exact neural pathways that are responsible for causing social and communication impairments. Their learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities can range from gifts to severely challenged and dependent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 percent of children diagnosed with autism had average or above-average IQ. Wolfgang Mozart, Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, and Lewis Carroll all had (or have) conditions on the autism spectrum. Would their phenotypes for intelligence, creativity, or innovation have survived the selective removal of their autism genes?

“The goal of breeding out diseases at least at the surface is a noble one,” Shuman said. “Years ago, I realized as humans we are going to suffer no matter what we do. We can lessen the suffering for certain types of people and no one should stand in the way of decelerating these technologies. But we also must consider we’re at earth’s carrying capacity. We need to consider where we will put all of these people.”

Creating the perfect human, free of diseases and disorders, seems like a far-fetched and futuristic idea for starting a white-picket-fence family. But we’re already breeding diseases out of our children before they’re even born. It’s only a matter of time before we create the perfect specimen, but will discovering the immorality behind it come first?