Poll: Cherry-picking embryos for intellect interests many

This IVF gene-screening technology does not exist today, but a bioethicist expresses concern about its perceived value among respondents.

Given the hypothetical chance to influence a pregnancy, nearly 40% of U.S. poll respondents said yes, they’d be interested to employ an in vitro fertilization technology that predicts which embryo has better genetic markers of intelligence.

The survey results, published last month in Science, might cause you to shrug, given that no such screening exists today. But the findings have stirred concern among scientists and ethicists who characterize the idea as yet another way to perpetuate societal inequality, and revealing of an unfounded perspective that a top-tier college education is vital to success.

“It's interesting that such a high proportion of people surveyed were supportive of these embryo-testing technologies. But it’s troubling that survey respondents said they’d go to such an extreme to get their child into a top 100 college. It hints at how much we're focused on in that one narrow view of educational attainment or a successful life,” said Kate MacDuffie, a pediatric bioethicist at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Children's Research Institute. She was not involved in the survey.

picturee of Kate MacDuffie
“I think we don't know what richness we would lose in society by doing this type of embryo screening,” said Kate MacDuffie, a bioethicist with UW Medicine and Seattle Children's Research Institute.

The poll gauged public support for three ways to modestly improve a future child’s chance to get into a top-100 university. In one method, genetic testing of an IVF embryo would yield info about potential scholastic advantage (supported by 38% of respondents). In a second method, that information could be used for gene modification (28%). The third method was an SAT prep course (68%).

Respondents were told to assume that about 3% of kids get into a top-100 college, and that parents could boost their child’s chance to 5% by selecting an IVF embryo whose gene mix was relatively more intellectual.

“I think we don't know what richness we would lose in society by doing this type of embryo screening,” MacDuffie said. “I listen to a lot of podcast interviews with artists and musicians — and many of them did terribly in school. So if we only had a society of straight-A students, what would we lose in terms of human ingenuity, of creativity? Our world would be bland.”

Medical technology today enables would-be parents to test pregnancies for several conditions, among them Down syndrome, spina bifida, cystic fibrosis and others. MacDuffie contrasted the ethics of these screenings vs. that of a potential gene analysis for intelligence.

“This is testing to gain an advantage. It’s very different from testing for a disorder that can have a huge bearing on a child’s health and a family’s well-being. Parents find a lot of value in knowing ahead of time about likely comorbidities, surgeries and the overall health journey they might face.”

Multiple aspects of the scholastic gene test scenario seem farfetched today, said MacDuffie, a child psychologist who worked in a fertility clinic for a time. For instance, she said, it’s unlikely that any manufacturer could claim great confidence about screening results without a lot more research. And the expense for IVF is unlikely to compel couples who don’t need it to pursue pregnancy.

Nonetheless, poll respondents’ interest in genetic cherry-picking for intellect is a red flag, MacDuffie said.

“This technology was more acceptable to people under 35 — the population that’s going to be having children. The trend probably will be greater acceptance over time. So I think it's good that this survey was done is because it is a bit of a wakeup call to people who assume this kind of technology could never exist.”

Written by Brian Donohue - 206-543-7856, bdonohue@uw.edu

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