For decades IVF treatments have been used to help couples with fertility issues to conceive. As time has gone on, modern technology in the field of genetics has made it feasible to potentially rank embryos by certain potential characteristics.

Indeed, researchers at Michigan State University speculate that in the next ten years it might be possible for couples to choose which embryos they want to transfer for possible implantation. A couple could, for example, prioritize IQ potential when it comes to screening criteria for which embryos are most suitable for implantation in the uterine lining.

This, of course, raises some potentially profound ethical questions about just how much technology should be allowed in the process. While the United States has been slow to adopt or legalize new genetic technology in IVF treatments, other countries might soon start doing so. There are even some organizations that are in the process of developing technology which could screen for genetic factors associated with diabetes.

The Debate Continues To Grow

For some, the ability to screen for genetic defects, and increased risk for health conditions like diabetes, obesity, mental health issues, and cancer seems almost too good to be true. If you ask most expectant parents they will likely say that “Having a healthy baby is a top priority.”

Even today, there are screening measures in place to look for things like cystic fibrosis, Down’s syndrome, and other major chromosome abnormalities. Many of these practices have been firmly in place since the 1990s with few complaints.

There are other traits such as height, physical appearance, intelligence and disease susceptibility, which are widely known to be related to genetics. Yet they are spread thinly over hundreds or in some cases thousands of DNA regions, which in the past made it impossible to screen specific traits.

Yet the prospect of being able to screen and ultimately select key traits like IQ can raise some unintended consequences. In some cases, it could even spark significant political debate about how we see our society developing. Suddenly introducing a large segment of the population with significantly higher IQs could potentially deepen existing concerns about social inequality.

Developing Guidelines For Acceptable Embryo Screening

With new genetic screening technology very realistically on the horizon, the debate about which criteria are considered ethically acceptable continues to grow. Beyond simply evaluating IQ potential. It could be possible to set up alerts that screen for increased heart disease risk, diabetes, and other genetically linked health conditions. This could even include mental health conditions such as schizophrenia.

As screening technology improves, organizations, physicians, and even entire nations could potentially start to track genetic profiles in an advanced database. Choosing which criteria to track may come down to a lengthy legal or political debate.

Which Countries Are More Likely To Adopt Genetic Screening Of Embryos?

Researchers at Michigan State University project that high-quality genetic and academic achievement data will start to become available in roughly five to ten years. At that point, it should be possible to predict an embryo’s IQ potential to within around 10 points.

Of course, some nations are more likely to adopt this technology than others, based on their societal norms and values. For example, Singapore has been shown to have a very high level of public acceptance for such tests. Conversely, the United States has a long history of being slow to adopt any measures that impact embryo modification. Meanwhile, the debate is just getting started in the United Kingdom, where genetic screening for Type 1 Diabetes is expected to be submitted for consideration by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.

Even if the UK rejects the idea of genetically screening embryos, it would still be possible for interested couples with the financial means to seek out such screening and IVF treatments in another country that embraces such testing.

Proponents argue that children around the world are already ranked through things like standardized testing. There are also rigorous entrance exam criteria that need to be met before a child can attend a private school or universities. One could argue that the ranking of these students is a manifest form of screening for intelligence.

What Are The Risks Of Screening Embryos Based On IQ Potential?

Should genetic screening become widely acceptable couples would theoretically have only a small number of viable embryos to choose from. The dilemma here is that perhaps only one embryo is available, and it might be deemed to be less than ideal.

There is also some research which raises concerns about unintended consequences. For example, a growing body of evidence has linked higher polygenic scores for academic ability with an increased likelihood of autism.

Advocates from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics further note there are other inherent risks. Simply by pursuing one beneficial trait, a couple could open the door for other issues. What if an embryo has a polygenic score that shows the potential for high intelligence, yet there is also underlying risk for diabetes, or perhaps another condition, which may not even be included in the screening results? What if that includes a higher risk for a mental illness such as schizophrenia, or an increased risk of early onset dementia?

They also note that risk scores for IQ can be very hard to interpret and may not always translate between different countries or even different ethnic groups. What might be considered attractive polygenic criteria in one country might not be considered viable in another.

At this time the technology is controversial and only theoretical. Yet there are a lot of signs that point to it being on the realistic horizon. Even IVF treatments were once seen as controversial. Yet today an estimated 1 to 2-percent of all babies born in an average year are the product of IVF treatments.

Chances are that even if polygenic screening is approved by certain nations, that it will take some time for society and even political climates to accept them as being part of the norm. The only thing that seems sure is that there is a debate looming on the horizon.

Source – Guardian