Humanity has long dreamed of perfection, striving to be faster, stronger and brighter, pushing nature to the limit. Four centuries before people were conceived in a petri dish, Swiss alchemist Paracelsus claimed flawless little beings could be grown in pumpkins filled with urine and horse dung, but there is no record he produced a crop.
With the birth of Louise Brown in 1978, the test tube finally succeeded where the pumpkin had failed, and the year she turned 11, scientists moved beyond making life in a lab: They found a way to peer into an embryo's genes and predict what that life might be like.
That ability is now morphing into a whole new approach to baby-making, one that gives people an unprecedented power to preview, and pick, the genetic traits of their prospective children.
Just as Paracelsus wrote that his recipe worked best if done in secret, modern science is quietly handing humanity something the quirky Renaissance scholar could only imagine: the capacity to harness our own evolution. We now have the potential to banish the genes that kill us, that make us susceptible to cancer, heart disease, depression, addictions and obesity, and to select those that may make us healthier, stronger, more intelligent.
The question is, should we?
It has been barely a year since the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the federal government's attempt to regulate assisted reproductive technology, handing the reins to the provinces, most of which have done nothing to fill the void.
During that year, fertility clinics across the country have begun to take advantage of the technology's latest tools. They are sending cells from embryos conceived here through in vitro fertilization (IVF) to private U.S. labs equipped to test them rapidly for an ever-growing list of genetic disorders that couples hope to avoid.
Recent breakthroughs have made it possible to scan every chromosome in a single embryonic cell, to test for genes involved in hundreds of “conditions,” some of which are clearly life-threatening while others are less dramatic and less certain – unlikely to strike until adulthood if they strike at all.
And science is far from finished. On the horizon are DNA microchips able to analyze more than a thousand traits at once, those linked not just to a child's health but to enhancements – genes that influence height, intelligence, hair, skin and eye colour and athletic ability.
Such tests were devised to help those suffering from infertility. But people well able to have babies the old-fashioned way now opt for IVF and embryo screening, paying a steep premium in return for the chance to have greater genetic control over their offspring.
Critics ranging from religious conservatives to advocates for the disabled worry that a new age of eugenics is rising, propelled not by racists, despots or elitists but by parental aspiration. Says Bernard Dickens, an expert in reproductive law and bioethics with the University of Toronto, this technology is “all part of the quest for the perfect child.”
That quest was once the domain of science fiction. But last year the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration compiled a list of the most plausible sci-fi films. From thousands of candidates, NASA picked seven, led by the 1997 thriller Gattaca. Set in “the very near future,” it depicts a eugenic dystopia created by embryo screening, in which people born naturally suffer in the shadow of those who begin life in a lab.
In one scene, a geneticist reassures a couple that “this child is still you, simply the best of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result.”
But the film's protagonist disagrees: “What began as a means to rid society of inheritable diseases has become a way to design your offspring – the line between health and enhancement blurred forever.”
It's a sobering prospect, yet in the real world, at least one prominent Oxford scholar supports such “unnatural selection” wholeheartedly, arguing that people who procreate are morally obliged to improve the species.
Many in the medical community also take a positive outlook.
“Parents are always choosing what they think is best for their children,” says Jeffrey Steinberg, whose Fertility Institutes has branches in Los Angeles, New York and, for those on a budget, Mexico. “The dilemma we've got,” he adds, “is that ... there are no rules.”