When my mother was born at the end of the Twenties, the novelist Aldous Huxley was writing of his Brave New World — a world in which human embryos were scientifically tested, selected and rejected on the basis of their genetic make-up.
No doubt he was influenced by his brother, the biologist Julian, a leading thinker of that time, who predicted that pre-birth health and IQ testing would drive the future of reproductive technology.
Yet if such antenatal tests had been available back then, my mother might never have been born.
At the time, eugenics, the fascistic doctrine of breeding a genetically pure race, was in vogue in Europe and the U.S.
Her parents — my grandparents — would have been warned, after testing, of their unborn daughter’s susceptibility to developing breast cancer as an adult, and might have opted to terminate her life.
She would never have had the chance to have a career in Fleet Street, to marry and raise two boys, and to enjoy life into her 70s — despite being stricken by breast cancer twice.
When my mother was born at the end of the Twenties, the novelist Aldous Huxley was writing of his Brave New World — a world in which human embryos were scientifically tested, selected and rejected on the basis of their genetic make-up (file photo)
And my life, of course, would never have begun.
I was reminded of this when reading recently about a controversial new ‘tool’ that would screen embryos for future risk of heart attacks, diabetes and cancer.
Yet again, the spectre of widespread pre-birth genetic testing and selection is being raised, and with it the prospect of ‘designer’ babies.
This time it is not science fiction but science fact, thanks to an American company that is lobbying to have its system adopted in the UK.
Scientists from Genomic Prediction say they have already tested embryos for susceptibility to diabetes, high blood pressure and skin cancer.
Now it has been reported that the company has asked CARE, one of the largest fertility clinics in the UK, to apply to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to consider the use of the technology, initially to test embryos for breast cancer risk by identifying several different genes.
Genetic screening is permitted in the UK, but only for high-risk ‘single gene’ illnesses such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia (couples opting for IVF can use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to ensure their child will not have the disease).
Screening for the single ‘BRCA’ gene mutations that put women at high risk of developing cancers of the breast and ovaries is also sanctioned.
These tests alone balance us on the razor’s edge of ethical peril. But they do at least predict the odds of future disease quite accurately, so parents can make an agonisingly considered decision about their child’s future on the basis of statistical likelihood.
There are, however, only a very few known single genes that can directly cause illnesses on their own.
It seems that Genomic Prediction wants to lead us into infinitely hazier territory, by screening embryos for multiple different genes that might somehow interact at some unspecifiable time to cause future common illnesses.
This is a little more than a bookmaker’s game of long-odds betting: it is highly likely those disparate genes will never actually be sparked into interacting to cause illness.
No doubt he was influenced by his brother, the biologist Julian, a leading thinker of that time, who predicted that pre-birth health and IQ testing would drive the future of reproductive technology (file photo)
How and why multiple genes can be caused to interact dangerously is unknown. The factors, be they biological, environmental or social, are so vastly complex as to be beyond our current powers of computation.
Genomic Prediction aims to go further still, with plans to develop tests for multiple genes that might possibly predispose unborn babies to developing far less genetically explicable conditions such as autism, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia in the future.
And chillingly, beyond this, the company says it is looking to screen embryos for ‘intellectual disabilities’.
I find this terrifying.
This is commercialised science vastly overreaching itself. It potentially opens a Pan-dora’s Box of moral horrors.
Eugenics and racial purity remained popular until World War II revealed the true horror of its twisted creed, with the Nazis pursuing the ideal of ‘perfect’ humans to its inevitable murderous conclusion.
Nowadays, eugenics has withered into a mere sideshow for cranks — but I wonder whether we are staring into the abyss once more.
You may think I am being alarmist, but I believe the idea of ‘designer’ babies could prove highly seductive to some young parents-to-be.
Today, we have a far more insidious social factor that will fuel gene-testing’s popularity. It is called consumerism.
People can now ‘buy’ all the physical attributes they are persuaded to consider desirable: plump lips, tight faces, gleaming teeth, Kim Kardashian-style derrieres —the list lengthens every month.
Take that promise just a little farther and we face the prospect of babies born to order, guaranteed to be delivered disease-free and devoid of mental frailties.
The obvious next step is for genetically enhanced children: taller, brighter, better.
And of course, this would largely be a preserve of the rich (as well as those aspirant types who will take out a second mortgage to keep up with the genetic Joneses).
Genomic Prediction’s alluring promise leads us inevitably towards the world that Aldous Huxley foresaw, of children born genetically predestined to be either elite-class enhanced, or sentenced to a miserable existence at the bottom of the DNA ladder.
It also changes our attitude towards new human life.
No longer would babies be welcomed as marvellous miraculous gifts, with the blessing of a life unmapped, full of hope and challenge.
Instead, they would be transformed into another consumer item, an accessory labelled for life with a genetic price-tag before they have even been able to draw their first breath.
Or simply discarded beforehand as ‘defective’ embryos.
The game of multiple-gene meddling that Genomic Prediction seeks to introduce is liable to go horribly wrong, as often as not.
To return to my mother’s case, for example, the new tool might have identified her in the womb as a multiple-gene cancer risk. But she can’t have had the inherited single-gene BRCA peril, because none of the other females in her family has ever developed breast or ovarian cancer.
So her life might have been terminated on the basis of multiple ‘maybe’ genes. So, for that matter, might the life of her sister, who never suffered from cancer in her 93 years.
It seems Mum’s cancer was the kind of genetic chance that can’t truthfully be predicted.
The course of life will always remain mysterious, its miracles and tragedies unpredictable. Indeed, what chance would the embryonic future scientist Stephen Hawking have had under the cold glare of the DNA-assaying machine?
Companies such as Genomic Prediction are paving our way to Hell with their presumably good intentions. For humanity’s sake, pre-birth DNA testing must stop at single-gene tests.
If it is allowed to go further, the miracle of childbirth will be replaced by a genetic lottery that allows consumers to dispose of their embryos for the most minutely ‘undesirable’ reasons, just as though they had no greater moral value than cheap fast-fashion.