Re: women freezing eggs or couples genetically designing babies, I agree that both will happen in the future, but I’m not sure how common either will be.

In discussing Dworkin’s article about the former yesterday, I subtly added to Dworkin’s analysis an assumption that such technology would become very cheap. Artificial birthcontrol changed sexual mores not only because it was effective in preventing pregnancies but also because it was cheap enough for virtually anyone to buy and use. That’s in the nature of a pill: once the chemical formula is known, the marginal cost of producing one more pill using the same formula is practically zero, and so it’s possible to make the pills very cheap. By contrast, the marginal costs of harvesting eggs, fertilizing them in test tubes, testing embryos for an ever expanding set of diseases or genetic abnormalities, correcting defects found, and reimplanting them in women’s wombs, etc., are never going to approach zero. These things will always require a signficant amount of time and attention from medical professionals; hence, they’ll always have a significant cost. At the moment, those costs are quite high. Yes, they will likely fall over time, but it’s very unlikely that they’ll become dirt cheap the way birth control pills are. The costs will probably remain significant in relation to the incomes of most people.

The question of whether people will incur those costs—or, more accurately, how many people will do so, for surely some will—is affected by the fact that there will always be a good and very cheap economic substitute to designing babies—namely, making babies the old fashion way. Figuring out what percentage of the population will think the costs of going the technology-heavy route are worth the benefits will depend on a lot of things, many of which cannot yet be known. If testing babies made in the normal course is easy and cheap (so that aborting the unhealthy ones is also easy and cheap), that might be a compromise option that is financially attractive for many people. Also, if the government starts paying for the relevant procedures, or requires employers offering health insurance to include coverage for them, that will of course increase the percentage of people who choose to go the technology-heavy route to reproduction.

So, on the whole, I agree that such things will occur in the future. But as to how commonly they will occur, I think that remains to be seen. If the costs fall enough, they will be the norm in wealthy countries (it’s obvious that the poor nations could never afford such things on a massive scale any time in the foreseeable future), but if the costs remain anything like what they currently are, they will be an aberrational option chosen only by the affluent, and perhaps even then only when health problems make the old-fashion option (with in utero genetic testing, etc.) unviable.

On the other hand, predicting the future based on cost projections is very dangerous. When Alexander Graham Bell publicly exhibited the first working telephone, a group of “futurists” in attendance dismissed it as a novelty the costs of which—mostly running wires all over the land—would make it impossible to bring to market. One very clever individual in the group, however, saw more potential for the invention. He declared that he could foresee a day “in which there will an instrument like this in every major city in the world.”

Articles by Robert T. Miller