Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Reproductive Wasteland

The more I read about the science of childbirth, the more I start to wonder where it's all going to end. Is anyone else beginning to get an uncomfortable feeling about this?

Maybe it was reading about the mother who is freezing her eggs so that her young daughter will have them to use if she turns out to be infertile when she grows up.

Or the California secretary who was allegedly fired when she declined her boss' job description which included $10,000 to serve as a donor womb for the aging woman's eggs.

Or the lesbian couple who sued their doctor for mistakenly giving them implanted embryo twins instead of a single baby.

Or the clinic in the UK that offers half-price fertilization embryo implant deals if the woman agrees to donate half her harvested eggs for research.

Or the college that says it has created a way for an artificial enzyme to replace sperm in "fertilizing" a woman's egg. As we feared, lads, they have finally done away with the last reason for our gender to exist.

A hoax website by performance artist Virgil Wong as the supposed first pregnant man (www.malepregnancy) sounds so real (fake news magazine covers no less!) that it has fooled even doctors, and caused some to concede that it is unlikely but no longer impossible. Good gosh - maternity hockey jerseys would not be far behind.

New terms - like "contract motherhood" - are thrown about until they sound almost normal. Creating babies for profit - strange - vaguely like a mix between prostitution and slavery.

The concepts of human genetic modification and cloning are mind-boggling - and frankly, somewhat creepy. I wouldn't want to clone some of the people I know - there are cases wandering about town where one of them may be nearly one too many.

Seriously, though, at what point does it stop being a case of playing science - and start being an attempt to play God?

Research and medical advances are wonderful - they have already given us childbirth miracles.

And it's not hard to understand the motivations to go farther. For one thing, there's honking big bucks in it, potentially. But there is something much more powerful at work here - the burning, indescribable desire of many people to have children even when nature, accident of fate or circumstance has denied them that possibility.

I've spoken with people in other parts of the country who have advertised in this region in hopes of hiring a pregnant young woman to carry a baby to term for them - they are truly, poignantly desperate, and debating the fine points of right and wrong or social impact isn't on the agenda.

They just want a have a baby; oh, how they want a baby. One woman told me how she was growing out her hair because a baby needs to feel the soft hair of a mother. And I expect that if science can engineer one for them somehow - maybe even one they can build to specifications - they would neither hesitate or quibble about pricetags.

A "Time" magazine essay says that human embryos are already a $4 billion industry - that should be pause for thought. In much of the world, embryos can be bought and sold like used cars, perhaps someday cloned (Congress has three times failed to absolutley ban human reproductive cloning experimentation in the U.S.) or implanted in the form of ovarian tissue into a womb (already successfully done in primates.)

The lines are getting fuzzy. People have gotten into custody battles over frozen embryos, and I'm told there is a beginning of a "reproductive tourism" boom where people longing for science-assisted pregnancy make the rounds of the countries with the loosest rules for dealing with human embryos.

The "Time" essay says Italy and Germany have responded by forbidding the warehousing of excess embryos beyond what is needed for implanting cases. England limits doctors to implanting no more than two or three embryos at a time (depending on the woman's age), and Sweden allows only one. Otherwise, an unscrupulous doctor could ram in a dozen, conceivably to allow a parent to select the one with the most viability (or to field her own genetic football squad, I guess.) We are right at the doorstep where the parent could select an embryo based even on desireability of their future physical traits.

In the United States, things have been somewhat on hold due to the lengthy debate over embryonic stem cells. If what we read about the new breakthroughs of using adult stem-cells for genetic engineering is true, all brakes may come off, and fast.

Most of us are not so uber-fundamental as to want to bring scientific advance to a stop. The question is, where to draw the lines?

If it is okay to progress to the point where prospective parents could screen out embyos for risk of severe intellectual disability or cystic fibrosis, would it be okay for them to screen for intelligence, likely height, red hair or green eyes? (Or, as "Time" suggests - for gay or straight sexual orientation? I'm not sure their science holds up, on that one. Queer Eye for the Research Guy?)

There is immense promise in genetic research to help people be healthier and even to deliver some miraculous bundles of joy - even those who like me are flummoxed by the complexities of the deep science here can see this.

But wouldn't there be potential for some great mistakes in unbridled experimental tinkering as well? If the mistakes go beyond the petri dish and into our own living gene pool, might we do more harm than good?

Science fiction seems to be marching toward fact rapidly. For many of us, it it hard to keep up on the advances, let alone really wrap our minds around the implications for the future in such a moral wilderness.

As a society, we may need to decide how far we want to go, before it is too late to have any control at all.

By the way, as I recall, when it comes to pursuing pregnacy the old fashioned way... the process does have a certain charm to it.