Sunday, 22 April 2012

Love children or designer babes?

Attending a course at the Royal College usually means wondering when we will have a world "where knowledge is FRREE!!!" like Rabindranath Tagore envisioned. Trying to concentrate on the lectures is difficult, while one is wondering what percentage of the course fees or the hotel bill, will be reimbursed by the trust.

Though lectures become more and more interesting each year. In 2010 we heard presentations on robotic surgery and this year we heard statements like- "Earlier it was time consuming and tedious but now our lab has a robot." Okaay....Then there were videos of developing embryos maturing in IVF labs- microscopic potential people! Wow!

There were debates on the ethical issues of who should be allowed to have a test tube baby (IVF). The Gujarati couple in their 70s, who had a baby recently through IVF was discussed and the discussion was left at- "Maybe things are different in India where the extended family looks after the children." Reallyy??? Don't think so!

A decade ago I had heard a top gynaecologist offer sex selection through IVF in India. In essence if one wanted a boy the doctors could make sure that the baby transferred to one's womb is a male one with, for some reason, only 80% certainty. I guess 100% would have been illegal.

 Here I heard how an embryo (microscopic baby) can be tested for any inherited diseases caused by gene defects and only a healthy embryo is then transferred to the mum's womb. This is a great relief for couples where things like Thalassemia or Hemophilia or cancer run in families. However, this is the beginning of the trend which will take us to designer babies. There are various websites now on internet where for 10000 dollars you can spit into a tube and post the tube to get your genes sequenced. Soon there will be a demand for desirable traits in children. Specially when ambition in this increasingly consumerist society is bordering on greed, recklessness and a desire to be in control.

Already, single women and same sex couples are allowed IVF and can choose from sperm banks - "32 year old Italian with dark hair, brown eyes, software engineer by profession..."

When I was listening to all this I was wondering what the world was coming to, until it occurred to me that after all, only 100-200 years ago, women wouldn't have been able to decide how many children they would have and would go through life either pregnant or breast feeding. Now it seems normal to be able to enjoy sex without the worry of falling pregnant and we cant imagine a world without the contraceptive pill or the condom.

In another 100-200 years, people will not just decide how many but also the (phenotypic) traits of the children they will have and that will be the accepted norm and it will be considered foolish not to do so.

Today people fall in love with the most unlikely people. A good friend of mine, a Punjabi kudi who was a walking matrimonial ad- tall, slim, fair, doctor etc etc studied in Delhi but found her love, a man from Southern India, when she travelled to another city in Western India for a week long sports tournament...We all wondered how long this blind and long distance love would survive but it did. After another annual tournament,many moons of letters and STD call courtship, an elopement and court marriage, they recently celebrated 19 years of marriage.

Another friend found it in Japan while working their as part of her research in "chemistry". Chemistry it was and the man in question needless to say was of another nationality- not Indian.

This "spit into a tube and we will tell you where your ancestors came from" service, is probably going to reiterate to all of us that we all have similar ancestory and that a world without borders existed before we created "yours and mine." And with cloud computing, such a world will become a possibility in the future. While hopefully love will still make the world go around, in times to come and most babies will hopefully be created in the traditional way, many will be created in controlled environments like laboratories- siblings being created for transplants for existing sibling, clones of loved ones, siblings born many years apart from frozen embryos, posthumous children etc.etc.

Make love to make babies, no longer true!