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The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction:
A Stanford academic believes we are on the cusp of one of the most momentous changes in the history of evolution. All humans currently alive have one thing in common. Going back in an unbroken chain for millions of years our ancestors, whether they were modern humans, Homo habilis, or a fish that just learnt to walk, had sex, and in doing so made a new generation.
Not for much longer. Soon, Henry Greely argues in his book The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, that will not necessarily be the case. "In 20 to 40 years, when a couple wants a baby, he'll provide sperm and she'll provide a punch of skin," says Greely, a professor of law and genetics. Stem cells will be made from the skin, they will be made into eggs, the eggs will be fertilised and, "The prospective parents will be told, 'These five have really serious diseases, you don't want them'. Of the other 95, they will be given the pluses and minuses." The winning embryo will then be implanted in the woman.
While his vision may sound like something from science fiction - for example Gattaca, the film about eugenics starring Uma Thurman - it is already almost technologically feasible. For people at risk of passing on serious genetic conditions, pre-implantation screening is offered, where couples can choose fertilised embryos madethrough IVF in order to exclude those which may have the disease.
The two big advances that Professor Greely believes will democratise this process for all will be better knowledge of the genome, and an ability to make eggs from skin cells - ensuring that the onerous egg-harvesting process of IVF is a thing of the past. Both of these developments are anticipated in the near future. "Parents will get the embryos grouped by categories. One category will be very severe, untreatable, nasty diseases. This will affect 1-2 per cent of embryos. Another category will be other diseases. The third is cosmetics: hair, eyes, shape, whether the hair goes white early. We don’t know much about this yet, but we will. A fourth category is behavioural - I think here information will be limited. We won’t be able to say, 'This child is in the top 1 per cent of intelligence'. We probably will be able to say, 'This child has a 60 per cent chance of being in the top half'."
Far from being costly, it would probably more than pay for itself by eliminating serious genetic diseases. In fact, he says, so ubiquitous will this technique be in developed countries, that making babies the old-fashioned way may well end up being considered irresponsible. "Particularly in countries where you pay for healthcare socially, if children are born after this is a possibility there may well be a stigma to doing so naturally. People will say, 'You go ahead and have a child with Tay-Sachs disease then, we're picking up the bill'."
One consequence of developing these techniques is there will be no real barrier to making sperm from female skin cells or eggs from male skin cells. While this will be great news for gay couples, it could create situations that will vex the moral philosophers of 2050.
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