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Ethics and Morality

The Ethics of Embryo Selection

The reproductive revolution won't be the end of romance or the death of dignity.

Key points

  • People need to maintain humility when entering the new world of reproductive technology, but should not assume “nature” is a master engineer.
  • Genetic diversity should be maintained, but governments cannot be trusted to control the reproductive choices of individuals.
  • There is nothing inconsistent between selecting against disability, while promoting the rights and dignity of disabled people who already exist.

We choose our mates with care. Many of us make bad dating decisions when we’re young—and some of us do when we’re old—but we generally care a great deal about who we have children with. Our options are constrained by many factors. But we all dream of a partner who has qualities that we value—compassion, intelligence, beauty. Whatever turns us on.

Since all traits are heritable, our mate choices are, indirectly, preferences over bundles of genes. As I reviewed in a previous post, reproductive technologies like embryo selection will soon increase the degree to which we can consciously choose our children’s traits.

There are no perfect children, and technology can never replace the importance of a parent’s love and guidance. But given how powerful embryo selection will soon become, it is worth thinking through some of the social questions the technology raises.

Will Selection Kill Romance?

A general worry about using embryo selection to shape our children’s traits is that it will “instrumentalize” a process that should remain mysterious. Crucial aspects of meeting and mating have already been replaced with technology, often for the worse.

Consider the widespread use of dating apps to meet a partner, which has undermined old-fashioned courtship. Or the popularity of in vitro fertilization for pregnancy, the market for sperm and eggs, and the use of surrogates to carry a baby to term, each of which unfastens another link in the chain that used to begin with sex and end with a child.

The poet John Keats lamented that when Isaac Newton showed that rainbows are made of refracted light rather than divine dust, he was “unweaving the rainbow” by deconstructing a sacred mystery. Maybe this is a necessary cost of new scientific discoveries and technological innovations, including those relating to sex and reproduction.

But reproductive technology, unromantic as it may seem, can also reduce the risk that children will suffer from cognitive and physical impairments. And for some it can be exciting: While we can’t shop around for a kid the way we choose from different kinds of apples in a supermarket, we can give our kids a greater chance of living a healthy and happy life.

Leaving everything up to “nature” is not always a good idea. Nature is cruel, and natural selection does not optimize for health and happiness. It simply selects for traits that produce more surviving offspring in a specific environment. If rape serves that end, evolution will reward rapists. As the philosophers Allen Buchanan and Russell Powell argue, evolution is not a master engineer, but a “morally blind, fickle, tightly shackled tinkerer.” Adding a bit of conscious selection to the mix may produce better outcomes. But there are no guarantees.

Will Selection Destroy Diversity?

Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes. Aesthetic diversity makes dating more fun, and cognitive diversity makes getting to know people more interesting.

A common worry associated with genetic selection is that it will diminish diversity in dangerous ways. While this is an important possibility, studies suggest that when people choose sperm or egg donors, they select for a diversity of traits. They tend to select donors that look like themselves, just a bit smarter or more athletic. They value general intelligence, but they also select donors for personality traits like creativity and kindness. It’s likely that parents using IVF will select embryos along similar dimensions.

There is no doubt that if radical genetic enhancement were possible, and if everyone were selecting the traits of their kids for many generations, it would dramatically change the gene pool (my suspicion is that it would increase, not decrease diversity, but nobody knows for sure).

But this already happens unconsciously through mate selection, and on a larger scale through gene-culture co-evolution. While we can imagine governments limiting our options in order to increase a specific kind of genetic diversity, there are real dangers in trusting government agents with a great deal of power in this domain.

In large, low-trust countries, government agents typically lack the incentive or the information needed to enact policies that help their citizens (let alone humanity as a whole) achieve optimal genetic diversity, assuming such a thing exists.

Perhaps regulatory parsimony is the best prescription. Regulatory parsimony holds that when rules are necessary to solve collective action problems, they should be few in number and clear in scope. For example, a government might forbid selection in favor of antisocial traits like psychopathy or extreme narcissism, or there might be rules intended to prevent a large sex ratio imbalance. Governments might subsidize IVF to equalize access, or mandate genetic counseling for some procedures. But going much beyond this and trying to micromanage parental choices has big risks.

When governments ban or heavily regulate a service for which there is strong demand, this tends to make the service more dangerous to provide (think of banning abortion or alcohol, for example). And bans tend to increase the inequalities many people worry about (the rich and well-connected can more easily circumvent complex regulations by paying bribes or traveling to other countries to buy a service).

Will Selection Harm the Disabled?

Suppose some people use embryo selection to minimize the risk of disability for their children. Does their decision to select against disability impose a cost on those who are born with disabilities?

Some activists think so. They argue that “disability” is just another way of being in the world, and is only disadvantageous if we treat the disabled with contempt. If there were less discrimination, disability would matter less.

There’s a grain of truth to this. But the best solution may be to promote social norms of respect for the disabled rather than outlawing people from selecting against disability. It is perfectly reasonable to recognize that a condition like quadriplegia or Down syndrome severely limits our options, and are reasonable to want to avoid, while simultaneously thinking we should treat those born with disabilities with dignity and compassion.

There are many more ethical questions raised by technologies like embryo selection. In the next installment in this series, I’ll review recent survey evidence that reveals people’s attitudes toward embryo selection and gene editing. And I’ll discuss how these preferences are likely to evolve, given experimental evidence on the psychology of belief change. Ready or not, a reproductive revolution is coming.

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