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Lord Winston says IVF could 'threaten our humanity'

12 May 2014
Appeared in BioNews 753

The advancement of IVF techniques could 'threaten our humanity' if it enables the rich to pay for designer babies, said Professor Lord Robert Winston, a pioneer of the fertility treatment.

In a speech given at the Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis International Society's annual meeting held this year at the University of Kent, Lord Winston said 'we have got carried away' by breakthroughs in assisted conception and warned of a resurgence in eugenics.

He said that he feared a time where the rich could afford to tweak the genes of babies to alter their appearance and ability so that rich parents may be able to afford to have babies with enhanced intelligence, musical ability and strength, while 'poor people' could not.

Lord Winston also claimed that this 'toxic' climate was the result of 'massive' enthusiasm in developing fertility techniques and the 'desperation' of people seeking fertility treatment. The growing market for fertility treatments and the pressure to enhance human qualities could, as he suggests, lead us to 'a society where some people may actually have something that might threaten our humanity'.

'One of the problems with our work is that we have been carried away with massive enthusiasms in reproduction. That mixture of enthusiasm and patient desperation is actually a very toxic and heady mixture', quotes the Daily Mail.

'It is worthwhile standing back a little from the technologies that we employ. One of the issues of the market is that rich people may well be able to afford, in due course, the kind of enhancement to their genetics that other poor people may not be able to afford'.

However, he also said that it is possible for this 'age of eugenics' to die out, being overshadowed by more important issues such as the shortage of resources, water, food and the threat of climate change.

Lord Winston is the emeritus professor of fertility studies at Imperial College London. As an IVF expert, he pioneered new IVF treatments and was part of the team at Hammersmith Hospital whose research led to the first child born following PGD.

Commenting on the speech, Philippa Taylor of the Christian Medical Fellowship told the Daily Mail: 'If Lord Winston is saying this, I hope that people take notice. He is someone who is an expert in the area but also someone who sees the bigger picture'.

On the other hand, Dr Allan Pacey, the chairman of the British Fertility Society, doubts that we will ever achieve the technology to alter complex genetic traits. 'The law prohibits it, even if it was technically possible', he added.

Susan Seenan, chief executive of Infertility Network UK, also disagrees with Lord Winston: 'Most patients just want to have a baby. They are not looking to have a designer baby'. She added that to the average patient, IVF is a lifeline rather than a platform for eugenics.

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