I’m not taking sides on the abortion debate, just drawing maps of the potential future, so don’t shoot the messenger.
An average baby girl is born with a million eggs, still has 300,000 when she reaches puberty, and subsequently releases 300 – 400 of these over her reproductive lifetime. Typically one or two will become kids but today a woman has no way of deciding which ones, and she certainly has no control over which sperm is used beyond choosing her partner.
Surely it can’t be very far in the future (as a wild guess, say 2050) before we fully understand the links between how someone is and their genetics (and all the other biological factors involved in determining outcome too). That knowledge could then notionally be used to create some sort of nanotech (aka magic) gate that would allow her to choose which of her eggs get to be ovulated and potentially fertilized, wasting ones she isn’t interested in and going for it when she’s released a good one. Maybe by 2060, women would also be able to filter sperm the same way, helping some while blocking others. Choice needn’t be limited to whether to have a baby or not, but which baby.
Choosing a particularly promising egg and then which sperm would combine best with it, an embryo might be created only if it is likely to result in the right person (perhaps an excellent athlete, or an artist, or a scientist, or just good looking), or deselected if it would become the wrong person (e.g. a terrorist, criminal, saxophonist, Republican).
However, by the time we have the technology to do that, and even before we fully know what gene combos result in what features, we would almost certainly be able to simply assemble any chosen DNA and insert it into an egg from which the DNA has been removed. That would seem a more reliable mechanism to get the ‘perfect’ baby than choosing from a long list of imperfect ones. Active assembly should beat deselection from a random list.
By then, we might even be using new DNA bases that don’t exist in nature, invented by people or AI to add or control features or abilities nature doesn’t reliably provide for.
If we can do that, and if we know how to simulate how someone might turn out, then we could go further and create lots of electronic babies that live their entire lives in an electronic Matrix style existence. Let’s expand on that briefly.
Even today, couples can store eggs and sperm for later use, but with this future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomize combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to buy listings of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’ – DNA listings are not alive so current laws don’t forbid trading in them. These listings could however be used to create electronic ‘virtual’offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. If an electronic baby turns out particularly well, it might be promoted to actual life via DNA assembly and real pregnancy. The following consequences are obvious:
Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage
Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self
Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly
Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.
It is clear that this whole technology field is rich in ethical issues! But we don’t need to go deep into future tech to find more of those. Just following current political trends to their logical conclusions introduces a lot more. I’ve written often on the random walk of values, and we cannot be confident that many values we hold today will still reign in decades time. Where might this random walk lead? Let’s explore some more.
Even in ‘conventional’ pregnancies, although the right to choose has been firmly established in most of the developed world, a woman usually has very little information about the fetus and has to make her decision almost entirely based on her own circumstances and values. The proportion of abortions related to known fetal characteristics such as genetic conditions or abnormalities is small. Most decisions can’t yet take any account of what sort of person that fetus might become. We should expect future technology to provide far more information on fetus characteristics and likely future development. Perhaps if a woman is better informed on likely outcomes, might that sometimes affect her decision, in either direction?
In some circumstances, potential outcome may be less certain and an informed decision might require more time or more tests. To allow for that without reducing the right to choose, is possible future law could allow for conditional terminations, registered before a legal time limit but performed later (before another time limit) when more is known. This period could be used for more medical tests, or to advertise the baby to potential adopters that want a child just like that one, or simply to allow more time for the mother to see how her own circumstances change. Between 2005 and 2015, USA abortion rate dropped from 1 in 6 pregnancies to 1 in 7, while in the UK, 22% of pregnancies are terminated. What would these figures be if women could determine what future person would result? Would termination rate increase? To 30%, 50%? Abandon this one and see if we can make a better one? How many of us would exist if our parents had known then what they know now?
Whether and how late terminations should be permitted is still fiercely debated. There is already discussion about allowing terminations right up to birth and even after birth in particular circumstances. If so, then why stop there? We all know people who make excellent arguments for retrospective abortion. Maybe future parents should be allowed to decide whether to keep a child right up until it reaches its teens, depending on how the child turns out. Why not 16, or 18, or even 25, when people truly reach adulthood? By then they’d know what kind of person they’re inflicting on the world. Childhood and teen years could simply be a trial period. And why should only the parents have a say? Given an overpopulated world with an infinite number of potential people that could be brought into existence, perhaps the state could also demand a high standard of social performance before assigning a life license. The Chinese state already uses surveillance technology to assign social scores. It is a relatively small logical step further to link that to life licenses that require periodic renewal. Go a bit further if you will, and link that thought to the blog I just wrote on future surveillance: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2019/05/19/future-surveillance/.
Those of you who have watched Logan’s Run will be familiar with the idea of compulsory termination at a certain age. Why not instead have a flexible age that depends on social score? It could range from zero to 100. A pregnancy might only be permitted if the genetic blueprint passes a suitability test and then as nurture and environmental factors play their roles as a person ages, their life license could be renewed (or not) every year. A range of crimes might also result in withdrawal of a license, and subsequent termination.
Finally, what about AI? Future technology will allow us to make hybrids, symbionts if you like, with a genetically edited human-ish body, and a mind that is part human, part AI, with the AI acting partly as enhancement and partly as a control system. Maybe the future state could insist that installation into the embryo of a state ‘guardian’, a ‘supervisory AI’, essentially a deeply embedded police officer/judge/jury/executioner will be required to get the life license.
Random walks are dangerous. You can end up where you start, or somewhere very far away in any direction.
The legal battles and arguments around ‘choice’ won’t go away any time soon. They will become broader, more complex, more difficult, and more controversial.