When Baby-Making Moves From the Bedroom to the Laboratory

The old-fashioned way is on its way out.

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The future of baby-making is not in a bed, or in the back seat of a car. It’s in a lab. So says Stanford Law Professor Hank Greely, an expert on the intersection of ethical, legal, and social issues in the biosciences.

On the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Greely talks with Kishore Hari about the technology and ethics of embryo selection and a brave new world in which embryos are created from skin cells. While the idea of conceiving a child in a clinic may seem “deeply unromantic,” as Hari points out, Greely says it could have immense benefits. His book on the subject, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, is out now.

In the not-too-distant future, parents will be able to see a selection of embryos and pick the one they want based on its genetic traits, Greely says. This ability could eliminate the possibility that a baby will be born with a terminal disease such as Tay-Sachs, which destroys brain function and leads to death in childhood. The technology, he says, will also reduce costs by saving health care systems money that would be spent treating these genetic diseases. According to Greely, this future is only 20 to 40 years away. You can listen to the fascinating interview below:

Of course, the widespread creation of custom laboratory babies will have profound philosophical consequences as well. Greely points out that the United States is an “unusual and fascinating country” in that it has a strong anti-abortion movement and “the least-regulated assisted reproductive industry in the world.” But objectors will no doubt exist, even if they are in the minority. Greely predicts that opponents of embryo selection “will not be easily pigeonholed” based on political views. They could come from both sides of the aisle.

The ethical questions go far beyond whether it is appropriate to choose embryos that are less likely to develop breast cancer or Alzheimer’s. Different states and countries might develop highly nuanced regulations—for example, allowing embryo selection to prevent diseases, but not to choose eye color, gender, or IQ, says Greely.

There will be other consequences, too. Greely cautions that having the ability to choose an embryo based on certain genetic traits “will make life more difficult in a sense,” because it will leave parents with more decisions to make. Do they want a child with musical ability? A child that’s at a higher risk for one disease, such as schizophrenia, but at a lower risk for another, such as diabetes?

Nevertheless, Greely believes embryo selection will become popular in the United States. “My guess is more than half of babies are likely to be conceived this way,” he predicts.

After all, he says, “You want to get the best car. Why don’t you want to get the best baby?”

Inquiring Minds is a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and Kishore Hari, the director of the Bay Area Science Festival. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

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