The Bioethics of Mars One

Well, we’re agreed that it would be irresponsible, but first of all, sometimes even responsible, well-screened people do irresponsible things, particularly when thrown into unfamiliar environments, and what environment would be more unfamiliar than another planet? And beyond that, even if there was no intent to have children, accidents can always happen if left to chance. Laura Woodmansee, who has literally written the book on sex in space, thinks that it would be unethical to allow conception in weightlessness, let alone on an alien planet:

Couples going on space vacations are bound to want to have a good time. Maybe space tourism companies ought to consider banning conception in orbit. I realize this may seem extreme. But consider the fact that doctors prescribe medications with warnings about pregnancy. Maybe spaceflight ought to come with a warning label: ‘Don’t get pregnant in space.’ Sex in space education anyone?

The issue goes beyond gravity, or simply a hazardous environment in which to raise children -- pioneers have, after all, been raising children in hazardous environments since we climbed down from the trees. One of the reasons that the couple who will be chosen for Inspiration Mars will be beyond child-bearing age is because of the potential damage to the woman’s eggs from cosmic radiation, which is much higher both during the journey to Mars and on the planet itself. This is because Mars lacks both earth’s protective magnetic field and thick atmosphere. Such damage could result in birth defects for any resulting offspring. For the Inspiration Mars couple, this could be mitigated by freezing eggs and storing them safely back on earth until they return, but Mars settlers won’t have that option.

Now, I’m all in favor of letting people take their own risks for their own rewards. Exploration and settlement have never been free of hazard. But when it comes to bringing new human life involuntarily into a world with a very high, or at least completely unknown risk of debilitating or even agonizing results, we should err on the side of bioethical caution, and (like Inspiration Mars) select the first colonists on the basis of their (lack of) fertility, whether natural or voluntarily attained.

What I would suggest to the Mars One people, though, is given that they’re planning to spend billions on this project, and the long-term goal is to have true human settlement of the planet, which necessarily involves offspring of the settlers, they devote a modest amount of their budget funding research that NASA has completely neglected for decades, but that others have privately proposed, to establish a variable-gravity laboratory in orbit where we can start to understand these issues. The fact that NASA (or Congress) have never given such research any priority whatsoever is eloquent testimony to how unimportant both consider the goal of spreading humanity into the solar system. But until we do, young people who want to go off to barren (at least initially) worlds will have to continue to face the prospect of remaining barren themselves.

(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)