Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Modern Eugenics

This past Sunday my husband and I were watching the show, 60 Minutes. The story that caught my attention was that of a young couple who had chosen in vitro fertilization not because they have fertility problems, but because they wanted to be able to select an embryo that did not have a particular gene.

It turns out that the woman being interviewed carries a breast cancer gene that can cause a particular aggressive form of breast cancer, a cancer she herself had been diagnosed with at age 27. Although she has recovered, she did not want her children to be faced with that prospect. “Breast cancer will stop with me,” she said.

While her concern is understandable, this practice raises, or should raise, numerous red flags.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am not particularly morally comfortable with in vitro fertilization in any case. But the use of this technology to select for or against particular deficiencies is even more fraught with moral and ethical questions than the general practice itself.

The report suggests that couples – only wealthy couples however, given the cost of the procedure – have the capacity to choose in vitro fertilization in order to design a child that might be more to their liking than whatever the normal means might yield. Are you an older mother who might be worried about Down’s Syndrome? Use in vitro and select only the embryo with a “healthy” genome. Family history of Tay Sach’s, Muscular Dystrophy, or Cystic Fibrosis? No problem.

The report noted that at some point in time, couples could use this technology to select for intelligence, hair color, eye color, physique, or any other characteristic. In fact, one researcher suggested that he predicts the best way forward is to completely disconnect human reproduction from the sex act to ensure the best outcome.

I am wondering how all of this is not simply modern eugenics, the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics.

But I am also asking the rather obvious question about what this sort of selection says about persons who have these diseases. If an embryo is deemed disposable because of some genetic condition, what might that say about the relative worth and dignity of persons in our communities who have that condition?

From a Christian perspective, is it even true that this sort of selection actually improves humanity? What about the Christian claim of power made perfect in weakness, and the weak in our midst shaming the strong? What do we learn from weakness?

All of this generates a certain level of sadness in me.

But perhaps the greatest sadness I feel has even more to do with the sense that children are more and more becoming commodities to be selected and purchased, rather than gifts to be received with gratitude from the Giver of life, who does not make mistakes.

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