GENETIC technologies could be exploited in the future to produce more intelligent, stronger and attractive offspring, with better regulation needed to guard against the dangers, a leading fertility expert has warned.
Professor Lord Robert Winston will this week give a lecture at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, where he will warn that current controls will not be able to keep pace with advances in reproductive technologies. He will say a “form of eugenics” could lead to people wanting to modify their children to enhance “desirable characteristics” such as intelligence and beauty.
But Prof Winston said this form of eugenics – improving human qualities through the reproductive process – could have serious implications for the individuals involved and society in general.
The talk on Wednesday, part of a lecture series called Sex in Three Cities, has been organised by the Society for Reproduction and Fertility (SRF). Speaking to The Scotsman, Prof Winston said the reproductive process had been manipulated in different ways throughout history.
“I am going to argue that it is an issue that is more serious now in some ways because of the commercialisation of reproductive medicine, increasingly so with climate change, global warming, water shortages, food shortages, conflict and burgeoning technology that is not always well controlled by governments.
“It may well be an area that will rear its ugly head again. We should be on our guard against it.”
Prof Winston, professor of science and society at Imperial College London, said advances in research meant that making genetic changes to humans was an increasing possibility.
“Now we have technology where we can modify the genomics of individuals by gene transfer and genetic meddling,” he said.
“We may find that people will want to modify their children, enhance their intelligence, their strength and their beauty and all the other so-called desirable characteristics.
“That is going to become an increasing risk as a market.
“That will be a form of eugenics which will actually have all sorts of serious implications for developed societies.”
Prof Winston said labs were already able to modify the genetic make-up of mice, making them express certain genes that they would not produce naturally.
“Of course it is a very simple matter to identify genes which might modify intelligence or memory and start thinking about whether you want to enhance a human, and the next generation is going to have to deal with that issue,” he said.
“Should we be trying to enhance humans rather than trying to educate them and so on?”
Prof Winston said the techniques would not necessarily require the use of IVF, with other technologies available to modify humans.
“You can now modify the genes of large animals, and the largest animal we are concerned with is the human. So it is a real issue.
“There are various dangers of this, some of which are practical dangers to the actual child you produce. In future it is almost certainly true we will be able to make these modifications to humans, possibly in the very near future.
“It will not necessarily require advanced reproductive techniques like IVF to do it.
“This is something that our society needs to discuss and debate and consider.”
Prof Winston said he would be using the lecture to re-emphasise his concerns with how reproductive techniques are regulated.
“I am going to argue that the regulatory framework that we have in this country is almost completely pointless,” he said.
“That is something I strongly feel about. I think that the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) is not capable of regulating either the commercial aspects of reproductive technologies or the risks that people who undergo these technologies really run.”
Prof Cheryl Ashworth, researcher at the Roslin Institute and vice-chair of the SRF, agreed that advances in science posed challenges for regulation.
“It is almost as if the legislation hasn’t kept pace with the technology,” she said.
“All these technologies have to be adopted with caution, but we need to embrace the scientific progress with all the checks and balances as appropriate.
“It is important that legislation keeps pace with scientific progress.”
Last night, Dr Winston’s were dismissed as “hypocritical” by a pro-life organisation.
John Smeaton, chief executive of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, said: “Dr Robert Winston is the prophet of the reproductive technology industry and what he does is sound a very hypocritical note and tone of alarm about such developments and then we find a few months later he says there’s nothing to worry about.
“He positions himself as a responsible scientist, then, at the same time, he is a champion of the reproductive industry with its ‘create and disregard’ attitude to human life.
“For every birth using IVF, 23 foetuses are rejected, disregarded or used in experiments, those are totally unique human beings.
“This is part and parcel of the control scientist seek over human life, and I am not at all surprised by this development.”
A spokeswoman for the HFEA last night refused to comment on Prof Winston’s remarks.