In the absence of any meaningful regulations and restrictions, IVF has also brought with it precisely the kind of consequences that many people caught up in the so-called “panic” worried about two generations ago. True, we don’t “decant” our babies in the laboratory, à la Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but between the embryos we keep on ice and the ones we create and destroy for scientific research, the normalization of paid surrogacy and the freewheeling marketplace in eggs and sperm, we live in a society that has commodified both reproduction and human life itself in ways that would have seemed dystopian, not only to the social conservatives of an earlier era, but to many of its liberals as well.

James Watson wasn’t mistaken, in this sense, about the consequences of the breakthrough; he was just wrong about how society would respond to them. The slippery slope was entirely real; going down it just turned out to be a relatively comfortable experience.

The Wisdom of a Moral Panic – I think this happens a lot: people predict terrible consequences of some proposed social change, and then later are laughed at for their foolish fearfulness. Often, though — think for instance of those who warned against the dangers of no-fault divorce — the doomsayers were right, and what they prophesied came true. We were just too distracted by our toys to notice, or we decided that we preferred the benefits of the new model and could put up with the costs. But that doesn’t mean that those who predicted bad consequences were wrong: it only means that we are insensible to changes that occur over a long period of time, and that a given society often recalculates its cost/benefit ratios. Sometimes those recalculations are wise and sometimes they aren’t.