Posted June 27, 2007
The Search for Perfection
Babies Eliminated as New Eugenics Gains Force
By Father John Flynn, L.C.
ROME, JUNE 25, 2007 - The desire for perfect babies combined with the possibilities of biotechnology is taking an ever-higher toll. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and other forms of screening enable the detection of genetic defects, leading either to embryos being eliminated before implantation when combined with in vitro fecundation, or to abortion in the case of pregnancies already in progress.
Philosopher Michael J. Sandel considered some of the ethical questions involved in this practice in the book "The Case Against Perfection," published in May by Belknap Press. A professor of government at Harvard University, Sandel starts his brief book by asking if, even when no harm is involved, there is something troubling about parents "ordering up a child" with certain genetic traits.
Sandel's approach is nonreligious and does not fully embrace the position of the Church. For example, he defends embryonic stem cell research. Nevertheless, the book provides a useful series of reflections which invite the reader to consider the implications of both eliminating individuals with genetic defects and also efforts to "improve" physical or mental capabilities.
This "drive to mastery," as Sandel terms it, runs the risk of destroying our appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements. In other words, "that not everything in the world is open to any use we may desire or devise."
When it comes to parenthood, Sandel comments that unlike our friends, we do not choose our children. "To appreciate children as gifts is to accept them as they come, not as objects of our design, or products of our will, or instruments of our ambition."
Thus, he continues, the problem with wanting to choose children with or without certain genetic characteristics is in the hubris of the parents. Such a parental disposition, he adverts, "disfigures the relation between parent and child." As a result the unconditional love that a parent should have toward a child is placed at risk.
Sandel also warns that if we erode the sense of the gifted character of human powers and achievements we will damage three important elements in society: humility, responsibility and solidarity.
A school for humility
Parenthood is a school for humility, according to Sandel, in which we care deeply about our children, and also live with the unexpected. When it comes to responsibility, the more we become involved in determining our genetic qualities, the greater the burden we will bear for the talents we have and how we perform.
For example, once giving birth to a child with Down syndrome was considered a matter of chance. Today parents who of children with Down syndrome or other disabilities feel blamed for not having eliminated the child before birth.
In turn, this growth in responsibility could well damage solidarity, Sandel continues, because there is a very real risk that those who are less fortunate will come to be seen not as disadvantaged, but as simply unfit.
Sandel is not the only one to be worried over what happens to those who are less fortunate in the genetic stakes. A number of press articles over the last few months have taken up the matter of the elimination of embryos detected with Down syndrome.
On May 9 the New York Times published an article reporting that, following a new recommendation by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, doctors have begun to offer a screening procedure to all pregnant women, regardless of age, for Down syndrome. About 90% of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis normally choose to have an abortion, the article reported.
The article then went on to describe the efforts by some parents to educate the medical profession about the fulfilling lives that children suffering from disabilities can lead. Advances in medical treatment and appropriate attention means that, despite not inconsiderable difficulties, Down syndrome children can achieve much in their lives.
The New York Times returned to the argument on May 13 with another article. Among other testimonies was that of Sarah Lynn Lester, a supporter of abortion rights, who nevertheless continued her pregnancy after learning her child had Down syndrome. "I thought it would be morally wrong to have an abortion for a child that had a genetic disability," she told the newspaper.
Earlier this year the Canadian Down Syndrome Society launched a public awareness campaign to counter the trend toward genetic testing, reported the National Post newspaper Jan. 10.
The campaign came just as the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada released a recommendation that all expectant mothers undergo screening for Down syndrome.
The article also quoted Dr. Will Johnston, president of the Vancouver-based organization Physicians for Life, who said his members find the move toward more fetal screening to be troubling.
"I think it shows our inability as a culture to be as inclusive and accepting of diversity as we would like to think we are," he said.
Italy is another country where genetic screening is increasing. According to a March 11 report in the national daily newspaper La Repubblica, by 2005 no less than 79% of Italian women were having three or more ultrasound examinations during pregnancy.
The tests, however, can sometimes have a tragic outcome. On March 7 the Italian news agency ANSA reported on the case of a 22 week-old fetus aborted because of a mistaken diagnosis of a defective esophagus.
After the ultrasound examination, which erroneously seemed to reveal a problem, the mother decided to abort. The baby survived the abortion, but the following day ANSA reported that it had died.
As biotechnology develops, genetic screening seems destined to expand even further, with ominous consequences for babies. On May 6 the London-based Sunday Times reported that the Bridge Center Fertility clinic had received the go ahead from the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to screen a couple's embryos in order to create a baby without eyes affected with cross-eye, also known as a squint.
The article also noted that screening has now started for some forms of cancer and early-onset Alzheimer's.
"We will increasingly see the use of embryo screening for severe cosmetic conditions," Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the clinic, told the Sunday Times.
David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, was critical of the decision to allow such screening. "We moved from preventing children who will die young to those who might become ill in middle age," he noted. "Now we discard those who will live as long as the rest of us but are cosmetically imperfect."
Concern over such trends was also expressed by Benedict XVI in an address given Feb. 24 to members of the Pontifical Academy for Life. "A new wave of discriminatory eugenics finds consensus in the name of the presumed well-being of the individual, and laws are promoted especially in the economically progressive world for the legalization of euthanasia," the Pontiff warned.
In today's increasingly secularized world our consciences face increasing obstacles in distinguishing the correct path to take on these and other issues, the Pope added. This is due both to a growing rejection of the Christian tradition and also to a distrust of the capacity of our reason to perceive the truth, he explained.
"Life is the first good received from God and is fundamental to all others; to guarantee the right to life for all and in an equal manner for all is the duty upon which the future of humanity depends," the Holy Father concluded. A duty made increasingly urgent in the face of increased pressures to manipulate life.