Mario Ledwith and Fiona Macrae, Daily Mail (London), May 5, 2014
Breakthroughs in IVF could ‘threaten our humanity’ by prompting parents to demand designer babies, Robert Winston has warned.
The fertility pioneer said that he feared a time when the rich could alter the appearance and ability of children by tinkering with their genes.
And he claimed a ‘toxic’ climate had been created by the desperation of childless couples and the pace of scientific developments in the booming IVF industry.
Warning of a resurgence in eugenics, the broadcaster and Labour peer said there was a ‘real risk that we could see that kind of attitude in our humanity occurring again’.
In the future, he claimed, the rich may be able to pay to have babies with enhanced intelligence, musical ability and strength.
Lord Winston’s comments will be hugely controversial among fertility experts, not least because he is a pioneer in IVF treatment and has helped to bring more than 10,000 babies into the world.
Medical ethicists last night praised him for speaking out, saying it was refreshing to hear a scientist who ‘saw the bigger picture’ about the potential dangers. But his comments angered fertility groups. They said IVF was a ‘lifeline’ and it was wrong to suggest childless couples were looking to have a designer baby as the vast majority simply wanted a child.
Lord Winston, who is instantly recognisable from his TV programmes such as Child of Our Time and The Human Body, told a fertility conference that new genetic screening technologies meant scientists working with IVF needed to be particularly aware of the danger of eugenics becoming more prevalent.
Taking aim at fertility colleagues and patients, he said: ‘One of the problems with our work is that we have been carried away with massive enthusiasms in reproduction. That mixture of enthusiasm and patient desperation is actually a very toxic and heady mixture. It is worthwhile standing back a little from the technologies that we employ.
‘One of the issues of the market is that rich people may well be able to afford, in due course, the kind of enhancement to their genetics that other poor people may not be able to afford.’
The 73-year-old added that a growing market for fertility treatments and pressure to enhance human qualities could mean we ‘end up with a society where some people may actually have something that might threaten our humanity’.
Lord Winston, emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London, was delivering a speech at the University of Kent titled Reflections on IVF technology–will we be human in 100 years?. He told fellow fertility experts: ‘The age of eugenics is one that we don’t think of as being important now.’
But he added: ‘In a world where there is conflict, where there is shortage of resources, shortage of water, shortage of food, climate change, I don’t think it is impossible that this is necessarily going to die out.’
The hugely controversial theory of eugenics suggests that humans can be improved by preventing people with supposedly undesirable qualities or genetic defects from reproducing.
Similarly, those seen to have ‘desirable qualities’ should be encouraged to have babies.
It has been regarded as a toxic doctrine since it was used by the Nazis to justify a compulsory sterilisation programme, whereby ‘defectives’ were not allowed to reproduce.
Josephine Quintavalle, of campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said that IVF gives people the chance to think about having a perfect baby. She added: ‘In many aspects, the opportunities to think about best and better are increasing by the moment.’
Philippa Taylor, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said: ‘If Lord Winston is saying this, I hope that people take notice. He is someone who is an expert in the area but also someone who sees the bigger picture.’
But Susan Seenan, chief executive of support group Infertility Network UK, said: ‘Most patients just want to have a baby. They are not looking to have a designer baby.’ She added that to the average patient, IVF is a lifeline–and eugenics is the last thing on their mind.
Dr Allan Pacey, the chairman of the British Fertility Society, said he doubts we will ever have the skill to alter complex traits such as musical ability. He added: ‘The law prohibits it, even if it was technically possible.
‘Most infertile couples are desperate for a baby, rather than a specific type of baby, and I don’t see that changing.’