Roughly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin shared his theory of natural selection with the world. It is through this evolutionary process that all species — humans included — chose their mates. Early on in our history, it was a process of elimination more than a choice. The individuals best adapted to their environments would survive long enough to reproduce, sending their desirable genes forward to the next generation.
Natural selection is still at work in our species today, but so is a far less natural means of genetic manipulation.
“All people are not created equal”
In December 2016, global fertility agency Purenetics opened for business. The company claims to provide its clients with eggs and sperm “from the highest quality donors in the world.” Basically, it is a company that is meant to allow the rich to “buy” a baby with whatever genetics they desire.
Those “genetically desirable” donors submit their information online, sharing everything from their blood type and eye color to their IQ and ethnicity. Purenetics clients must show proof of funds of at least $750,000 and give a deposit of $10,000 to even access the donor database. If they decide to make a purchase, $500,000 goes to the donor and $250,000 to Purenetics.
Up until just last year, payment for an egg donation was limited to $10,000, and the average sperm donation still only earns the donor roughly $35 to $50. Clearly, Purenetics is positioning itself as a high-end fertility service—one that works with people that the company designates as being “genetically elite.”
The company’s founder claims that the work is not unique: “Our focus is not that much different than that of an upscale matchmaking service,” he claimed in a press release announcing the company’s launch. “It is a niche market that has not been addressed in an institutionalized way.”
Despite the founder’s attempts to normalize the process, the company’s uber-sexy donor video and tagline of “All people are not created equal” might leave anyone without a modeling contract feel a bit like a member of the huddled masses. Add to that social media accounts that feature more buxom blondes than a Playboy pool party, the founder’s decision to remain anonymous, and the fact that donors must pay $5.99 to even submit their applications, and the whole thing feels even less legit.
But setting aside any clues that it might be little more than a money-making scheme, is Purenetics necessarily doing anything wrong by selecting “desirable genes”?
While our ancient ancestors had pretty simple criteria for their reproductive mates — stay alive long enough to reproduce — advances in healthcare, agriculture, and education have made it so surviving well past the reproductive years has become the norm in much of the developed world. Research confirms what most of us probably already knew: people with the traits that are now most desirable — good looking, wealthy, steady income — are in a position to be more selective when choosing their mates. Proponents of Purenetics might say it is simply using the technology of the internet to speed up the selection process.
But like many issues surrounding the intersection of genetics and reproduction, this one carries with it numerous ethical concerns.
In 1978, the world’s first “test tube baby” was born via in vitro fertilization. Researchers had successfully removed an egg from a woman’s ovary, paired it in a laboratory dish with her husband’s sperm, and then implanted the subsequent embryo into her uterus. The woman had been unable to conceive through traditional methods despite years of trying, but nine months after the procedure, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Another medical breakthrough took place 25 years later when the first human genome was mapped. As the Human Genome Project put it, “Having the essentially complete sequence of the human genome is similar to having all the pages of a manual needed to make the human body.” Today, anyone with a couple hundred dollars to spare can request an abbreviated copy of their own genetic owner’s manual through sites like 23 and Me or Pathway Genomics. This relatively easy access to human DNA has led to new medical research and treatments, and now, we’re not only able to study and learn from human DNA, we can also alter it.
IVF has been called everything from a “moral abomination” to a “miracle,” and public opinion is split on gene editing as well, with some deriding the technology as “playing God,” while others list its thousands of benefits. Combine the two controversial medical milestones, and the phrase “designer baby” moves from the realm of science fiction tropes to that of real-world possibilities. That shift excites some and terrifies others.
Only recently have laws against human embryo editing begun to loosen, but we have good reason to be cautious about the technology — past efforts to manipulate the genetic makeup of a population haven’t gone so well. The early-twentieth century eugenics movement in the United States considered poor, uneducated, promiscuous, and non-white citizens “genetic undesireables.” By the time the movement ended, more than 64,000 people had been legally subjected to forced sterilization. It wasn’t until after the Nazis enacted their own eugenics programs that the practice lost favor in the U.S.
Thankfully, the situation today is a little different. Instead of forcing those with undesirable traits to forgo reproduction altogether, in some instances, doctors could simply remove the negative traits from their DNA. Some are already envisioning a not-so-distant future in which this modification will be permitted when doing so could prevent a baby from inheriting a disease. Editing genes to ensure a baby is healthy doesn’t seem so controversial. But attractive or tall or athletic? Where do we draw the line?
Right now, the best way to ensure that you have the “perfect” baby is to choose a mate that meets all of your qualifications and hope your offspring takes after them. After all, being a billionaire isn’t an inheritable genetic trait, but if the money can be used to buy the reproductive material of someone whose desirable traits are inheritable, are we really doing anything differently than our ancestors, combining the genetics of society’s “fittest” — both financially and genetically — to create the next generation?
There is no right answer, but the question of just how far we’re willing to go to create the ideal offspring is one we’ll need to address very soon. If someone is willing to pay $750,000 in the hopes that “elite” DNA from a donor will carry on to the next generation, would they be willing to skirt the law and modify that DNA to ensure that it does?