Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jun. 1, 1996
Published on: 21C Magazine
19 min read

There is a new baby boom. Embryo research has developed well beyond in-vitro-fertilization programs. Medical scientists are now developing cloning techniques, offering genetic screening and using foetal tissue for disease prevention.

by Wilson da Silva

Standard men and women, in uniform batches. The whole of a small factory staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg. “Ninety-six identical twins working on ninety-six identical machines!” The Director’s voice was almost tremulous with enthusiasm. “In exceptional cases we can make one ovary yield us over fifteen thousand adult individuals. You really know where you are. For the first time in history.”
Brave New World, 1932 

THAT WAS Aldous Huxley’s vision: a world where children were born for a specific reason, with a predetermined purpose, and with just enough intelligence for their preordained task. Where Alphas led society while Epsilons cleaned the sewers. And where everyone was happy.

Today, we are not all that far from Huxley’s vision of production-line babies in glass bottles. Of human embryos on demand. But only now are we starting to come to grips with the issues raised.

In fact, the process already has a name: ectogenesis, the creation of life outside the human body. And to an extent, it already occurs, especially when couples with fertility problems opt for in-vitro fertilization (IVF). These days, the human womb is a transit lounge; a fetus has only to log five months inside before it can carry on growing in an incubator. Most of the time, a normal child results.

The gap between conception and the departure of the foetus from the human womb, already remarkably small, is becoming even smaller. Researchers at Tokyo University announced last year that they had successfully raised a goat foetus in a rubber womb. The foetus was extracted from the mother 120 days into gestation (the equivalent in human terms would be four months or so, and placed into a sealed rubber container filled with artificial amniotic fluid and supplied with air and nutrients. It was then ‘birthed’ 17 days later.

At first, the goat could not breathe unassisted, and for the first month of life, it was incapable of standing. But thereafter it developed normally. In another experiment some years ago, Stanford University scientists implanted human foetuses, the product of spontaneous abortions, into glass wombs they had developed. The foetuses grew seemingly as normal for 48 hours. Today, it is common for human foetuses to grow for up to two weeks in laboratories.

Among some researchers there is talk of using the bodies of brain-dead women as ‘baby farms,’ into which a desired embryo can be implanted with, nine months later, a baby extracted. While it may sound a little sordid and more than a little far-fetched, proponents argue that this is just an extension of organ donation.

Donated organs already ‘go to work’ for somebody else once the donor has finished using them, as it were. Only this time, the whole body is the organ. One could imagine women signing contracts for post-mortem work, with the income going to beneficiaries.

In a limited and unplanned way, this has already occurred: In the past few years, a number of pregnant women who died accidentally have been kept alive until after the birth of the child they carried. In 1986, a Californian woman, who was 26 weeks pregnant, went into a coma following surgery for a brain tumour. Her body was kept alive for nearly two months to give her child the opportunity for further development in utero.

In April last year, Karen Battenbough, a 24-year-old Briton who was reduced to a vegetative state following a car accident was kept alive so the foetus she carried could grow to term. It was at 19 weeks’ gestation when the accident occurred. Four years ago, in Germany, the grandparents of an 18-year-old dental assistant who died in a car crash asked that she be placed on life support until doctors could bring her 14-week-old fetus to term.

The Roman Catholic Church, despite its opposition to abortion, objected to the action, and 33,000 protesters called for the life-support machine to be switched off, shouting, according to Britain’s Independent newspaper, “The baby is growing in a grave.”

But it is the cloning of human foetuses that has set most of the alarm bells ringing, if not among researchers, certainly with the public. In November 1993, Dr Jerry Hall and Dr Robert Stillman of George Washington University fertility research centre made headlines around the world when they casually announced at a Montréal medical conference that they had cloned human embryos.

Using human embryos with defects that would have prevented them developing into viable foetuses, the researchers grew them for a few days. Once the embryos had divided eight or so times, and were still smaller than the comma at the end of this phrase, the researchers sliced them in two.

The two halves of the embryos multiplied again uninterrupted. Had they been left alone, they would have grown into twins. In effect, the researchers were mimicking the process that naturally produces identical twins. But they did it 48 times.

The media reaction caught the researchers by surprise. “Scientist Clones Human Embryos, and Creates an Ethical Challenge” blared the New York Times on its front page. Time magazine said, “A line had been crossed. A taboo broken. A Brave New World of cookie-cutter humans, baked and bred to order, seemed, if not just around the corner, then just over the horizon.”

A national poll in the United States found Americans had deep reservations about human cloning: three out of four disapproved, 40 per cent would place a temporary halt on the research, and 46 per cent were willing to go as far as outlawing the cloning of human beings.

The feat may have been innocuous, if technically challenging, but it opened the door to a host of unnerving possibilities. After such a procedure, a woman could bear a child and rear it to the age of eight and, if she wanted another exactly like her first, order exactly that. The identical clone embryo could be thawed from its minus 196°C liquid-nitrogen bottle and implanted into her womb. She would bear a sibling that was an exact duplicate of her first child – in fact a twin – but eight years younger.

Or a woman wanting to have a child, but not wishing to have sex with a man, could, had her parents been far-sighted enough, thaw out one of the clone embryos from which she herself sprang, have it implanted in her womb, and give birth to her twin. She would at the same time be its sister and its mother. It’s Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, with a technological twist.

Then there is the prospect of your cloned embryo being kept on ice, then grown into an exact duplicate of yourself, which could then be raided for spare organs as you needed them. Organs would be 100 per cent compatible: They would be, after all, yours.

Or cloned human embryos, frozen and bottled, could be sold to hospitals for their tissue to be used as brain transplant material for sufferers of Parkinson’s disease. Some commentators have conjured up a world where prospective parents could choose from a catalogue of embryo models available from a genetics corporation. The catalogue might contain the social and academic achievements of various foetus models.

There’s Jamie #6, a tall Caucasian redhead with a propensity for mathematics and a developed athletic ability. Or Sebastian #7, a brown-eyed Hispanic with remarkably good visual acuity skills and a talent for the visual arts. Each foetus on offer would be an identical twin of the child in the catalogue, albeit in embryo form.

As the children grow, their progress through life might be tracked by the genetics company, which could provide detailed ‘average’ biographical data for the parent shopping around, including photos of what the children will look like at ages five, 10 and 20. At last, consumer choice would reach the womb. Another victory for capitalism.

“This represents moral terra incognita for us as a society,” says ethicist James Nelson, of the Hastings Centre in New York. “We have a huge range of definitions of what an embryo is - anywhere from a person to just a bunch of tissue like any clump in the body.”

Not all ethicists are as deeply troubled. Take Dr Peter Singer, the Australian ethicist whose book Animal Liberation in 1975 spawned the animal-rights movement. He sees nothing inherently unethical about using cloned foetuses for spare parts, or even growing a simulated human copy of yourself – as long as the clone is identifiably non-human.

“You would have to terminate the process before consciousness occurs, which is at some stage in the last third of pregnancy, or somehow prevent the brain from forming while keeping the rest of the organism going,” says Singer, deputy director of the Monash University’s Centre for Human Bioethics in Melbourne. “I don’t really have a problem with that.”

Yet even the most liberal agree that production-line babies would not be a desirable thing. Singer again: “It’s not impossible. You would hope that people’s desire for diversity, their desire for having their own children in the usual way, would be such that you wouldn’t end up with a world like that.

“But you might get a significant number, and yeah, that’s a worry,” he says. “I would prefer there not to be a commercial trade in them, just as I would prefer there not be a commercial trade in blood.”

Unfortunately, a commercial trade in embryos already exists. Aborted embryos are on offer to researchers around the world from some US medical centres, most notably the Central Laboratory for Human Embryology at the University of Washington. And in China, there have been repeated reports of large public hospitals selling aborted embryos by the bottle for as little as US$2.60 each.

Reports in Hong Kong, where a female reporter was able to obtain them from a Shenzhen hospital last year, quoted doctors saying that the embryos were mostly taken home by doctors who consumed them for their youth-enhancing properties. Soup is apparently the preferred culinary medium.

We could, eventually, play God: choose from a range of standard characteristics and skill predispositions, while avoiding the genes that increase chances of breast and bowel cancer, blindness, and a host of other ailments. This is already available on a limited basis in some test-tube-baby clinics; in Britain, couples having a fertilized egg inserted into the mother’s womb can first have the embryo scanned for predisposition to breast and bowel cancer. If the predisposition shows, the embryo is discarded in favour of one with a better DNA pedigree. In this way, scientists could eventually screen out any of the known 5,000 disorders caused by defective genes.

In this way, the internal human hardware could be re-engineered to produce a healthier child. Maybe even, a little further down the track, one could start reconfiguring the basic human architecture and construct variations on humanity: building in better memory retention, tolerance for temperature extremes, better eyesight – hell, call a spade a spade – engineer a ‘superior’ human being.

There is a term for this, and it predates that of ectogenesis. It is eugenics, and dates back to the late-19th century when it was believed that one could breed a ‘superior’ race. The concept reached an extreme under the Nazis, who tried to engineer an ‘Aryan nation’ of blond, blue-eyed citizens. There was no scientific basis for assuming this race was superior, and the concept is now discredited.

Genetic manipulation is, however, opening the door to a revival of eugenics, albeit in a less racist and a more scientific form. There are more than 1,250 biotechnology companies in the United States alone, an industry worth over US$6 billion a year. Advances in genetic engineering are already yielding pigs, sheep, cows, rabbits, mice and fish, all carrying human genes. Pigs, for example, who can be harvested for heart and kidney transplants that won’t be rejected by their human recipients.

With the Human Genome Project, a 15-year, US$3 billion program to catalogue the billions of base pairs in human DNA, well underway, there may soon be little to stop us creating human-chimpanzee hybrids. These might have minimal intelligence, but be more than capable of handling all those menial tasks we humans so abhor.

This would allow humans to create a race of genetically engineered slaves, much like Huxley’s Epsilons. Racism supplanted by speciesism. We might even engineer it so that they would be happy with their lot. It’s a scary thought. As yet, this is beyond technological reach. But you can bet that it will be possible before the ethics have been sorted out.

Human-chimpanzee hybrids may not be so far-fetched

It is the test-tube-baby industry that is spawning most of these advances. And it is a powerful industry, 15 years old and worth more than US$1 billion a year. In the United States, an estimated five million couples have difficulty conceiving, and more than 10,000 frozen embryos are floating in liquid nitrogen tanks.

Singer’s point about commercialisation is a salient one: As a profit motive enters the equation, ethical considerations are likely to fall from the top of the agenda. Customers can already leaf through catalogues that list the characteristics of sperm donors, including one of Nobel Prize-winners. Can mail-order embryos be far away?

“We are one of the few countries in the world where you can sell sperm and eggs,” says ethicist George Annas of Boston University. How long, he asks, before some enterprising US company offers cloned embryos merging, for example, Michael Jordan’s sperm with Cindy Crawford’s egg?

There is already evidence that potential profitability is skewing the judgment of some researchers. At the University of California at Irvine, an investigation has been launched into doctors at a fertility clinic. They are accused of having stolen frozen embryos, selectively implanting them in infertile couples, and conducting experiments on IVF patients without their knowledge. One doctor recently resigned, and the other two have been suspended.

“Things are done in this field that would never, ever be done in any other field of medicine without review or without big studies that look at efficacy or safety,” Jonathan Von Blerkom, co-director of Reproductive Genetics In Vitro, a Denver clinic, told the Los Angeles Times recently.

The experimental use of foetal tissue on sufferers of Parkinson’s disease, although yielding some remarkably positive results, has also spawned an ethical debate. Named after the 19th-century British physician James Parkinson, the ailment results in progressive neural degeneration deep within the brain, especially of the neurons that produce dopamine and serotonin, important neurotransmitters. Sufferers become unable to move, have poor balance, and lose dexterity. Between 500,000 and 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson’s disease.

In a still-experimental process, brain tissue from aborted embryos is transplanted into patients. Technicians sift through the remains of 10 or so abortions to find one usable piece of brain containing dopamine-making cells, and it takes three or four intact tissue specimens to perform a transplant into just one side of a patient’s brain.

But supply of foetal tissue, which is needed in large quantities, is scarce. So much so that this has opened up a market opportunity in the Third World: The Cuban government last year instructed its doctors to charge Parkinson’s sufferers from the US, Canada, South America and Europe up to US$20,000 each for an implant procedure. This generated widespread dissent among doctors. But not always on the grounds of ethics: Cuban doctors earn around US$16 a month.

Scientists say that the potential gains from embryo research are worthwhile; studying them could bring advances in cancer research, for example. Rapidly dividing embryonic cells behave much like cancer tumours. But young embryo cells mature into various types of tissue, while cancer cells remain cancer cells, and wreak havoc. Researchers would dearly like to know what happens in the naturally dividing foetal cell, and to understand what turns a cancer cell ‘on’ and ‘off.’

In the meantime, the debate rages about the ethics of manipulation of the human reproductive process.

And the thought arises: One day, will the product of a cloned embryo wonder if he is real, or merely a copy? Or won’t it matter? 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

This was the cover story of 21C Magazine in June 1996