When He Jiankui announced that he had “edited” two embryos in hopes of ensuring they would become immune to the virus that causes AIDS, he also announced his opposition to using the same gene-editing technologies to enhance children’s IQs. As scientists were quick to point out, the pathways from genes to intelligence are just too complex for such enhancement to be feasible. For the foreseeable future, editing embryos to enhance IQ is a sci-fi fantasy.
A different approach aimed at enhancing IQ is far less fantastic. We’re calling it embryo profiling, and it could be done today.
Embryo profiling capitalizes on the ability to add up the minuscule effects associated with thousands of genetic variants to create what’s called a polygenic score. On the basis of this score, researchers can make predictions about an embryo’s likelihood of exhibiting given traits, from developing cardiovascular disease to going far in school. The latter, known as educational attainment and often taken to be a proxy for IQ, is a trait for which researchers claim to have made significant progress.
The practical value of predictions based on polygenic scores in humans is still the subject of intense scientific debate. But the equivalent of calculating polygenic scores of sires and dams (though not embryos) is already being used to breed cows with enhanced milk production.
Not waiting for the scientific debate to be settled about the accuracy of predictions regarding traits as complex as human IQ, a new company, Genomic Prediction, is now offering prospective parents the ability to identify and avoid implanting embryos that are likely to have very low IQs. Although the company says the same set of technologies can identify high IQ embryos, it has indicated that, at least for now, it will not offer that service because doing so would be unethical.
However, Stephen Hsu, one of the founders of Genomic Prediction, has described his vision of the day when prospective parents can use genome profiling to select the “smartest” embryo, with a gain of 15 IQ points compared with the also-rans. It’s not a stretch to suspect that selecting for embryos with the greatest potential for high IQ, as wildly imperfect as the process may be at present, could soon be on the market.
Whether or not Genomic Prediction really thinks that selecting for high IQ would be unethical, we do.
Parents have at least two fundamental ethical obligations that push in diametrically opposite directions. The first requires parents to shape their children. That’s what schools and religious traditions and piano lessons and household chores are for. The second requires parents to accept their children as they are, to nurture their dispositions and talents whatever they may be. Balancing those competing obligations is one of the central challenges of being a parent.
Market pressures, however, are creating a grotesque imbalance between those obligations. One need only look at the proliferation of ridiculously expensive after-school enrichment and summer learning programs, which have taken the place of time for play and unskilled summer work, to see the pressures already on well-to-do parents to pursue every possible advantage for their children.
For those who can afford to pay for in vitro fertilization and embryo profiling, which is likely to cost upwards of $20,000 at current rates, selecting for high IQ embryos would be more of the same — on steroids. It would make it still harder to achieve the balance of obligations that parents need to strike if families are going to flourish. Moreover, it would be yet one more factor exacerbating the gap between the haves and have-nots.
Placing limits on the genetic selection of embryos is one small way for our society to affirm the importance of achieving a balance between the ethical obligations to shape our children and to accept them as they are — and the importance of closing, rather than widening, the gap between the rich and the poor.
With the emerging capacity to use polygenic scores to identify embryos with the potential for low or high IQs, there will be passionate calls to ban the entire practice. And there will be equally passionate calls to leave this to the market to sort out. Regulation represents a middle way between the bluntness of bans and the destructiveness of unchecked markets. Regulation would seek to draw lines between things that are — and are not — acceptable to do with embryos.
As difficult as drawing such lines would be, it is not impossible. Other countries have managed to do it. For nearly 30 years, the United Kingdom has had a body of experts that seeks input from the public, deliberates, and makes rules governing infertility services. This body has decided that not implanting embryos with one or more of the disorders on a long list them is legal, while doing it for things not on the list, such as high IQ, is not.
Stifling progress in eliminating genetic diseases is not our goal. But creating regulations to prevent embryo profiling from being abused might be one end that could inspire our elected representatives to reach across the aisle.
It is time to give embryo profiling the attention it deserves.
Erik Parens, Ph.D., is a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center. Paul Appelbaum, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Wendy Chung, Ph.D., is a clinical and research geneticist at Columbia University.