Hilary and Steven Rose: Playing God

Eggs from foetuses, artificial wombs, dead men's sperm - it's not only the religious right who object to such 'advances'

The promised age of genetics - or at least the age of genetic promises - has surely arrived. Scarcely a week goes by without some further claim of hitherto undreamed-of prospects for providing children for the childless. From the Raelian clones to artificial wombs and the marriage of harvested eggs and sperm from dead adults or aborted foetuses, geneticists and a newly emerging tribe of reproductive technologists seem to be coming closer to "playing God". Anything goes in this technologically sophisticated western world where consumers are king and queen and, with each newly extravagant claim, the capacity to shock is weakened.

So, collecting the ovaries from four-month-old female foetuses and stimulating them in vitro to develop to the stage where mature eggs can be harvested seems but one small further step down a path long ago embarked upon.

Of course, the possibility is still "only theoretical". Other biologists will point to the hazards of the approach, such as potential genetic problems and birth deformities, and seek to kick discussion of the development into the long grass. But the reassurance may well mask an intense research effort to realise the theoretical possibility.

Few share the belief that scientific progress automatically generates social progress. Whatever the biological possibilities, the advance may carry such huge risks that the outcome may be unacceptable for anything other than the most restricted use.

One of the unanticipated consequences of the genetic revolution in a highly individualised society is that it has helped foster a cultural preoccupation with genetic origins. A secure loving home is the foundation of any child's well-being. Yet the questions of who am I, who are my "real" parents, are ones many much-loved adopted children still ask. This longing is being recognised by a gradual shift in which it is seen as desirable for sperm donors to lose their invisibility. Legislation increasingly gives adopted children the right to know their birth parents.

Such shifts acknowledge that the longing to know our genetic identity has become more acute in the age of genetics. So consider the existential crisis faced by a child who learns that she is the product of a fertilised ovum harvested from a long-dead foetus and frozen sperm from an unidentifiable source. We have some idea of the stakes by extrapolating from the social research on IVF families. These are in many ways far less existential and more interesting than the abstract debates among ethicists would suggest.

The ethical reasoning used by families enables them to skilfully adjust to the new possibilities opened up by the new technologies. But social research has also documented the severe psychosocial and developmental problems of IVF multiple births and generated ethical reflection about the numbers of embryos to be implanted. In Britain, as in most European countries, there are restrictions on the number of implanted embryos; but in the US, one of the least regulated and technologically advanced countries, there are none.

The varied pattern of regulation leads to reproductive tourism in which well-heeled people from well-regulated countries go to less well-regulated ones to buy services, whether to choose the sex of a child, use pre-implantation genetic diagnostics, or ensure fertilisation by the sperm of a dead partner. While it is probable that the children conceived are likely to find themselves in a loving family, there is something unnerving about the way that a number of would-be parents court the media, exposing their intimate family life to such public scrutiny. (What do the four boys think when their mother so publicly used sex selection to make sure she didn't have another child like them?)

Genetics does more than make media headlines. It increasingly pervades our lives, with massive financial support from the government and the biotech industry. The Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust investment of £66m into creating a British human genetic biobank remains unchallenged, even though the expenditure has practically bankrupted the MRC and foreclosed other biomedical research options.

The need for more and more reproductive technology because of increasing problems in having children starts at the wrong end. Yes, it is true that women are having children later because they have to establish their careers first. Yes, it is true many men's sperm count is reduced. But instead of working at the curative end, if we began with the preventive, Britain would put serious money into affordable high-quality childcare so that women who wanted them could have their babies younger.We need a society that promotes reproductive health rather than expensive technological fixes.

We are witnessing a process that increasingly turns a child into a commodity, with product specification, quality control and rejection of sub-standard products - the wrong sex, the wrong genes.

The process also harms the clinicians who, instead of being professionals who give the best advice regardless of market considerations, become the providers of biotechnical services to customers with effective demand powers. Lady Warnock's quick dismissal of the ethical problems involved in harvesting eggs from aborted foetuses on the grounds that she can't see any difficulties for the mother, erases the human dignity claims of the potential child. It is distressing to find a social philosopher who has contributed so much to this debate forgetting the children.

In Britain the ethical debate is often characterised (not least by the scientists themselves) as being between the right-to-life religious lobby and the rational scientists who really care for the right to have a baby. We live in one of the most secular countries in the world, so the reprotechnologists can be sure of eventually pushing any innovation through despite the ethical debates. The secular criticism has been stifled by this split.

Reproductive tourism and its media coverage teaches a number of lessons. One is that the serious press needs to be more responsible. The new reproductive genetics and technologies open choices to people facing hard negatives. Pages of sentimental press coverage following the self-dramatising activities of a tiny minority get in the way of thinking deeply about human genetics as one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.

· Hilary Rose is a sociologist, Steven Rose is a biologist. They are joint editors of Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology.
hilaryrose@blueyonder.co.uk

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