Birds do it. Bees do it. So do we. But unlike the birds and the bees, we have created amazing new ways to reproduce.
Scientists are developing a technique by which a human embryo could be created from three different “parents,” by combining mitochondrial DNA from one mother with regular DNA from another. In related news, scientists in the UK have been permitted to do research involving human gene editing.
Both technologies have therapeutic benefits. The three-parent process would provide a remedy for diseases connected to defective mitochondrial DNA. Gene editing could help delete genetic diseases.
We are slowly developing the know-how to produce designer babies. But our technological prowess may be outpacing our capacity for moral judgment. We should be especially careful with regard to interventions that tamper with the genome – which would be heritable by future generations.
Are we ready to confront the brave, new world of reproductive technology? I’m not sure. We are still not great at dealing with ordinary reproduction. Venereal disease and unwanted pregnancies continue to plague us. Until we prove wise enough to control the normal business of the birds and bees, maybe we should avoid opening the Pandora’s box of genetic manipulation.
We have only recently gotten used to the idea of in vitro fertilization, sperm donation, surrogacy and genetic screening. Gay marriage and adoption are recent innovations. And abortion remains controversial. We are preparing to add a whole new layer of complexity to a world reeling from rapidly changing reproductive practices.
Our developing repertoire of reproductive technologies is part of a general demystification of sex and love. We used to speak of soul mates and true love. And we used to view reproduction as both private and miraculous. Those days are over.
Fewer Americans are marrying. According to the Pew Center, only half of American adults are married. That’s a major decline from 1960, when 72 percent of adults were married. And 40 percent of babies in the United States are born out of wedlock. Indeed, that phrase – and related terms like “illegitimate” – have quickly come to sound old-fashioned.
NFL celebrates sex
Our cavalier attitude toward baby-making was on display during the Super Bowl, where the NFL celebrated “Super Bowl Babies” – cute singing children, supposedly conceived after the Super Bowl in the cities of Super Bowl-winning teams.
Who knew that the Super Bowl was an aphrodisiac? But more importantly, who would want the circumstances of their conception splashed across the airwaves? In the old days, it was nobody’s business how or when conception occurred. We used to think that private mysteries of baby-making were better left unexplored. That’s true no more.
The magic of love is rapidly giving way to a view of sex and reproduction as mere transactions. In that climate, it is easy to imagine taking it for granted that offspring could be “programmed” in a lab.
Of love and money
The Super Bowl Babies ad also reminds us of the lurking problem of commercialism. This year, Americans will spend nearly $20 billion on Valentine’s Day. Cupid has become a capitalist.
And baby-making has succumbed to the profit motive. Surrogate mothers rent their wombs for tens of thousands of dollars. This adds another important moral wrinkle. Rich people have access to expensive reproductive technologies, while poor people risk exploitation. Indeed, surrogacy is often outsourced. In India, for example, poor women give birth to the babies of the affluent.
Poverty has quite a lot to do with reproduction. In the U.S., poor women are five times more likely to have unwanted pregnancies, while affluent women tend to defer child-bearing to focus on career goals. Control of fertility is expensive. It is essential for women’s rights – but it is unevenly distributed.
Given all of this, the romantic, mysterious view of reproduction is nostalgic nonsense. Progress seems to require further demystification of sex and greater control of reproduction. Reproductive control is certainly in the interests of women. It may also help us eradicate diseases.
But before we embrace this brave, new world, we ought to ask ourselves whether we are really wise enough to manage the business of the birds and the bees. We should also realize what we risk losing when Cupid goes commercial and reproduction becomes an engineering problem.