Barcoding embryos

Michael Cook
4 March 2014
Reproduced with Permission

As a child in a small American town I used to visit a tobacco shop to buy my sweets. It was hot one summer's day and the quiet man behind the counter with a thick Polish accent had rolled up his sleeves. I remember seeing a number tattooed on his inner forearm. Tattoos weren't fashionable then and the only ones I had seen were the anchors on the bulging forearms of Popeye.

A six-digit number was an odd choice for a tattoo, but I didn't ask him about it. I was more interested in my sweets.

Perhaps I should have. Perhaps I would have learned a few things about how people can treated like boxes in a warehouse. All these years later, that man's tattoo spells out the theory and practice of dehumanisation for me better than any textbook.

Like branding in the ancient world, those blurry blue digits symbolised a person's entrance into a world where he or she was just a commodity. And not a valuable commodity, but one which could be disposed of at will, so long as it could be accounted for.

Which is why I was revolted by an article in the January issue of the journal Human Reproduction.

Researchers at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona in Spain have come up with an "exciting" and "novel" system for tracking embryos and eggs in IVF clinics: barcodes, essentially microscopic tattoos. They have successfully attached several biofunctionalized polysilicon barcodes to the outer surface of the egg. The labels are injected into a space between the cell wall and the zona pellucida, a membrane that surrounds an egg. During normal reproduction, a fertilised embryo will shed this outer layer along with the barcodes.

Here is their enthusiastic description of the process:

The tagging system is simple, safe and highly efficient, allowing the identification of human oocytes [eggs] and embryos during the various steps of an ART [assisted reproduction technology] cycle. In a clinical setting, each patient would be assigned a specific barcode number, and all her oocytes/embryos would be tagged with this same barcode number. The tags would accompany the embryos throughout the whole ART procedure and until hatching, so that embryos will be free of the barcodes for implantation. The introduction of this direct tagging system in fertility clinics would be straightforward, as no special or expensive equipment is needed, and would surely minimize the occurrence of mix-ups.

The researchers are already working on an automated system for reading the barcodes under a microscope.

What's the point of this?

In IVF clinics there is always a risk of mixing up the eggs and embryos belonging to their clients. How often this happens no one knows, but it happens.

Careless handling can lead to ugly lawsuits. In a famous case in 1998, a white woman in New York became an unwitting surrogate for a black couple, leading to a fight over visitation and custody. In 2009 an Ohio woman, Carolyn Savage, found that she was pregnant with the child of another couple. She wrote a book about her experience, Inconceivable.

The publicity rattles potential clients. How can they be sure that the baby they are rocking in their arms is really theirs? Short of a DNA test, they can't be. And IVF clinics don't offer DNA tests as part of their service. Hence, the barcode.

Bioethicists who defend the idea point out that mistakes can be very damaging for the parents. Professor Art Caplan told FoxNews:

"When you're talking about mismatch, those kinds of errors are psychologically and emotionally devastating. You have parents who want to reject the child saying that the child clearly isn't the same race as they are. There's also a danger that the donor may change their mind and want to get involved in parenting. People really want that biological connection. So I think this is a terrific idea to reduce those difficulties."

But it's not. That is just a pragmatic justification to further dehumanise a dehumanised process. IVF separates the sexual act from reproduction, love from procreation. Sure, most people cherish the child conceived in a Petri dish, but it's not the unconditional love which accompanied the birth of a child which has been naturally conceived. The technicians in a clinic sift through the embryos and eliminate the ones which are "defective" or surplus to requirements. The evolution of loving parents into discerning customers is all but inevitable.

Barcoding embryos like cereal packets in the reproductive supermarket may seem like a "sensible" step forward. But actually it is a step backwards towards a final solution for disposable human beings. The English poet W.H. Auden satirised the inhumanity of a society build on the anonymous masses in his poem "The Unknown Citizen", who is know only as JS/07 M 378.

Barcoding embryos another version of the number tattooed on the forearm of the Polish shopkeeper. Embryos, children actually, are to be branded like cattle and assigned numbers instead of names. Loving parents give a gestating child a name, not a barcode. Despite all the promotional photos of glowing mums and gurgling babies, IVF is becoming a lot less like love and a lot more like manufacturing.