A new poll published in the journal Science shows growing support for the eugenics-based idea of selecting human embryos during in vitro fertilization (IVF) based on “intellectual aptitude,” MIT Technology Review reported this month.
IVF is an infertility treatment in which embryos are created outside the womb before being implanted in a mother’s uterus. Embryos, unborn human beings at the earliest stages of life, are often destroyed in the process, making IVF controversial for those in the pro-life movement who believe life begins at fertilization.
The new poll asked respondents their willingness to advance their children’s prospects in three ways: SAT prep courses, embryo tests, and gene editing on embryos. Thirty-eight percent said they would be willing to screen their embryos during IVF for likely intelligence levels, 68 percent would be willing to try an SAT prep course, and 28 percent said they would support gene editing, according to the report.
“I certainly don’t think this is something good. I am concerned about it,” says Michelle N. Meyer, a professor of bioethics with the Geisinger Health System, who coauthored the report. “The bigger risk is saying nothing and letting this unfold against a laissez-faire regulatory and market system.”
Antonio Regalado, the author of the MIT Technological Review article, compared the results of people who are willing to try genetic testing as “similar to the proportion of Americans who say they would consider an electric vehicle as their next car purchase.”
For some people, college prep might start in a test tube… and ethicists are freaking out. https://t.co/geA1y8vG7D
— MIT Technology Review (@techreview) February 9, 2023
According to the report, a so-called “polygenic score” or a genetic test can predict from genes whether “someone is going to be more or less likely to attend college.” Researchers told people participating in the poll that choosing one of ten IVF embryos with the highest gene score would increase the chance that their child would go to a top college from 3 percent to 5 percent. Shai Carmi, a geneticist and statistician at the Hebrew University in Israel said “assuming they are right” it’s actually “a very large relative increase” — about 67 percent,” the report states.
The report notes that while scholastic aptitude tests for embryos are not on the market yet, “the researchers who carried out the poll say it wouldn’t be safe to assume the technology will stay bottled up for long.”
“For instance, before IVF was developed in the 1970s, almost everyone was against “test tube babies.” After it worked, opinion shifted rapidly,” the report states.
The poll additionally found that only 6 percent of people are “morally opposed” to IVF and 17 percent have “strong moral qualms” with embryo testing.
“The sharp turn in public opinion about IVF itself shows that innovations that are initially met with limited uptake and even active resistance can quickly become normalized and widely accepted,” the researchers wrote.
Regalado wrote that as far as he could tell, “no child has yet been picked from a petri dish on the basis of its education potential score. However, he said “that moment may not be far off” as early users of genetic testing — “segments of society with strong preoccupations with cognitive performance” — have expressed interest.
One couple who were customers of Genomic Prediction, Simone Collins and her husband Malcolm, say they are building a large family using IVF and genomic health prediction tests. While they were not able to access educational prowess scores for their last child, Collins says next time could be different.
In an email, Collins said she has “identified companies” that “will provide this information.” She added, “We’ll absolutely be factoring it in with future embryo selection.”
If selecting which embryos to keep and destroy based on a desirable characteristic like intelligence sounds like eugenics, that is because it is. While the term “eugenics” has been banished from scientific circles after its employment caused disastrous societal outcomes — think Hitler’s extermination of Jewish people and forced sterilization in the United States — “eugenic ideas remained prevalent in many issues surrounding human reproduction,” according to Britannica.
“Medical genetics, a post-World War II medical specialty, encompasses a wide range of health concerns, from genetic screening and counseling to fetal gene manipulation and the treatment of adults suffering from hereditary disorders,” the online encyclopedia notes.
“…Couples at risk of passing on genetic defects may opt to remain childless or to adopt children. Furthermore, it is now possible to diagnose certain genetic defects in the unborn. Many couples choose to terminate a pregnancy that involves a genetically disabled offspring. These developments have reinforced the eugenic aim of identifying and eliminating undesirable genetic material,” the encyclopedia reads.