June 3, 2018 7:00 am

Making babies on Mars won’t be easy, or ethically straightforward

WATCH: 3 things you need to know about babies that might be born on Mars


The surface of Mars isn’t exactly what you’d call the ideal place to grow up.

Giant dust devils prowl the dry, barren landscape. The atmosphere is much thinner than here on Earth, the gravity isn’t quite the same either, and — as Sir Elton John put it in 1972 — “it’s cold as hell.”

But a future, self-sustaining human colony on Mars is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Experts believe we could be establishing settlements on the planet within a few decades, and if SpaceX founder Elon Musk has his way, humans will set foot on the surface within the next six years.

That raises big questions about how we will survive, and thrive, on a world so different from our own.

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Because the trip to Mars is both dangerous and complex, one of the keys to success over the long term will be reproduction, according to a new paper published in the journal Futures.

The researchers behind the paper, based in Poland, Brazil and the United States, argue that it’s high time we started thinking about sex and baby-making on the red planet, and about the problems and moral dilemmas that it could present.

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Among other things, kids will be needed simply to keep the community viable in case of a disaster, an outbreak of disease or another event that wipes out a bunch of colonists.

“A minimum viable human population for an extra-terrestrial colony to survive throughout time
should include about 5,000 individuals,” the paper notes, adding that it might be safer to aim closer to 5,800.

Physical hurdles

The challenges will likely start even before conception.

Humans evolved to reproduce on Earth, so while the decreased gravity (Mars gravity is 0.38 g compared to 1 g here) might be fun to bounce around in, it’s unclear how it would affect human sperm and eggs.

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But we do know that radiation from the sun, which is greater on Mars, is really bad for those cells.

“Radiation is known to be deleterious for adults and especially for reproductive cells, developing embryos and fetuses, and is already considered a major health hazard to astronauts,” the paper explains.

After conception, pregnant women will continue to be exposed to these conditions. The mother’s immune system may be temporarily compromised, increasing the risk of infections or other illnesses taking hold and then spreading to other people in the colony. Miscarriage, birth defects and cancers may become more prevalent.

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By the time the first Martian moms complete their training, travel to Mars and conceive, they may be older than 40. That also comes with increased risk.

“The process of having children can be overwhelming, especially in a dangerous Martian environment,” the researchers acknowledge.

“Psychological support to families should increase success not only in giving birth to healthy children, but also would assist families in the process of raising (them).”

Ethical concerns

Babies conceived on Mars are going to be born into a new world, the paper explains, and that new world may not follow the same ethical, religious or moral guidelines that we’ve established on our home planet.

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In a tiny community where the surrounding environment is basically trying to kill you and every person must contribute, the survival of the group may become more important than the survival of each individual.

“The idea to protect life at every stage of development may not be suited to a Mars colony,” the researchers predict. “We expect that the abortion policy would be liberal in comparison to Earth.”

That might mean that few, if any, children would be born with any form of disability that can be detected in the womb. Genetic counselling and matching of partners might become widespread, with careful selection of parents to make sure they are not even distantly related.

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While it might make people on Earth uncomfortable, Martian colonists may start to impose new or more restrictive criteria for what’s considered a “valuable offspring,” the paper suggests, and even restrict reproductive rights “to prevent traits incompatible with life in Mars from emerging in subsequent generations.”

A push for genetic editing to prevent serious medical conditions is already emerging on Earth.

“Such strategy should not be mistaken for eugenics,” the researchers argue, which involves trying to produce racially or genetically “pure” humans.

A new species?

If humanity can get over the first bumps and manage to establish a permanent colony with healthy children, the researchers note that something interesting might start to happen over time.

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If we begin selecting for or encouraging Mars-friendly traits in newborns through genetic engineering (which, again, may become more morally acceptable), a new subspecies of human might eventually emerge. They’d be better adapted to Mars’ environment, but might find living on Earth pretty uncomfortable.

“In such a scenario, new ethical challenges arise from the evolution of a new kind of human species who will possess a new nature and, consequently, possibly new moral duties and rights when compared with people living on Earth.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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