Stem cells a harbinger of dilemmas to come

Charlie Bass is taking serious heat from social conservatives for his leading role in the House vote to relax federal restrictions on stem cell research using new embryonic cell lines. But there’s not a peep about the tens of thousands of human embryos discarded each year in the U.S. incident to in vitro fertilization procedures used by couples otherwise unable to conceive. IVF sacrifices about a dozen embryos for each pregnancy.

IVF is only Chapter One in the book on the moral costs of new technologies to improve pregnancy outcomes. The average human is thought to have perhaps 300 genetic defects that impair health. A technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is therefore now used in combination with IVF to screen embryos at the eight-to-10-cell stage for a handful of these genetic defects.

Even today, over 450 genetic defects and other conditions such as deafness, dwarfism and mental retardation can be detected from fetal cell tests. Ashkenazi Jews’ acceptance of fetal cell testing has resulted in the virtual elimination of Tay-Sachs disease. As the unstoppable trend to removing genetic uncertainty in babies increases, the moral cost will be the culling of embryos and the abortion of children with increasingly modest disabilities. Doctors have anonymously admitted to aborting fetuses with poor vision and cleft palates.

Some severe conditions defy moral litmus testing. In exencephaly, the brain billows outside the incompletely formed skull. In cyclopia, a single eye forms in place of the nose. If you have the stomach, you can view pictures at the Web site in the note below.

“People will come into my office in tears and say they’ve been against abortion their whole lives,” said Dr. John Larsen, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington University Medical Center, “but they’ll make an exception for themselves.”

The black-hole anguish parents feel about aborting their genetically-imperfect babies also will drive increased future use of IVF and PGD in healthy parents. More pregnancies will begin in labs and fewer over candlelight. Future terminations will occur in the emotional sterility of these labs rather than the womb’s hormonal rain forest, lightening perceived moral burdens.

Visit to understand how powerfully genetic screening will drive genetic selection. Tears dripped from my jaw as I read the words of loving moms who have foresworn drinking and smoking, taken their folic acid, but who are forced to decide that their cherished babies’ broken lives are untenable.

Genetic selection will next move from defect avoidance to trait enhancement. Medical science is certain to bring us epidemiological surveys of hundreds of thousands of people, yielding exact information on the gene variants linked to many more desirable and undesirable traits. Coming within a few years are gene chips permitting rapid, automated screening for hundreds of these traits.

After reviewing volumes of expert speculation on the subject, I predict that genetic manipulation and selection for intelligence will become commercially available by 2030. Intelligence is a complex, “polygenetic” trait, meaning greatly more difficult to select for than freedom from Tay-Sachs disease, whose causation rests on a single gene. But at least 80 percent of adult intelligence is inherited — subject to genetic control.

Overwhelming economic forces will trump moral resistance to the genetic tools that will permit the mass human shift to higher intelligence. In their book-length study, “IQ and the Wealth of Nations,” Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen document that intelligence is prosperity’s single most powerful determinant.

National average intelligence varies dramatically from 59 in Equatorial Guinea, 98 in the U.S. to 107 in Hong Kong. More than culture, natural resources, climate and economic system, intelligence explains 54 percent of the variance among 81 nations’ per capita gross domestic product.

The only open questions about genetic selection for intelligence, social skills, athletic ability and appearance are exactly how soon, in which nations and how openly. If the United States maintains restrictions, East Asian nations such as Korea or India are virtually certain to rush ahead, given already strong government and popular support.

The controversy surrounding stem cell research is but a foretaste of the intractable moral dilemmas science, technology and our obsession with our children’s success will bring.

Jim Rubens is an author, angel investor and policy consultant. He blogs at

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