Neo-eugenics – the ethics of pre-natal screening

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2009

babyThe better we get at sequencing and manipulating the genetic codes that make us who we are, the more inevitable it is that we find ourselves faced with opening the Pandora’s Box of eugenics. Indeed, you could argue we’ve already cracked the lid and peeked; this report from the European Molecular Biology Organization points out that screening unborn kids for Down’s Syndrome is a form of eugenics:

These abortions are eugenic in both intention and effect—that is, their purpose is to eliminate a genetically defective fetus and thus allow for a genetically superior child in a subsequent pregnancy. This is a harsh way of phrasing it; another way is to say that parents just want to have healthy children. Nevertheless, however it is phrased, the conclusion is starkly unavoidable: terminating the pregnancy of a genetically defective fetus is widespread. Moreover, because none of the countries mentioned above coerce parents into aborting deformed fetuses, these abortions—which number many thousands each year—are carried out at the request of the parents, or at least the mothers. This high number of so-called medical abortions shows that many people, in many parts of the world, consider the elimination of a genetically defective fetus to be morally acceptable.

There are plenty of other mutations that can be screened for as well, but the nature of the tests means they’re not done across the board:

However, such tests probably do not markedly decrease the mutational burden of a nation’s newborns. Usually, a fetus is only tested for a specific mutation when its family medical history indicates that there is a clear risk. If, as must often be the case, parents are oblivious to the fact that they are carriers of a genetic disorder, they will have no reason to undergo a prenatal diagnosis, which is both expensive and invasive. Fetuses are also not tested for de novo mutations. However, given that many—perhaps most—parents want healthy children, should all fetuses be screened for many disease-causing mutations?

To myself at least, the question’s a total no-brainer – of course they should. If science isn’t for improving the quality of life of as many people as possible, then what is it for? [via FuturePundit; image by Hammer51052]

But as we well know, not everyone would agree – and recent events have demonstrated the extreme measures people are willing to take to voice and defend that belief, despite the inherent hypocrisy of murdering someone you consider to be a murderer. Thankfully such extremists are a minority, but abortion remains an emotionally charged issue, especially where religion comes into the picture. Rational logic dictates that giving every parent the choice is the fairest compromise, but rational logic fails when one side of the debate uses an appeal to a higher authority to deny the right of choice to everyone, regardless of their belief set.

Unlike Creationism – which I’m unafraid to label as a provably delusional philosophy – the ethical borders in debates around eugenics and abortion are fuzzy, based as they are on spiritual ideas that cannot be measured and tested in the same way as the geological age of the Earth. I don’t think anyone who believes that abortion is a form of murder should be forced to have one against their will, but nor do I think that those people should be permitted to deny that choice to others, be it by legal force, intimidation or worse. Whether there is a solution that will satisfy everyone remains to be seen – but as genetic science progresses, the need to reach that compromise will become more urgent. Let’s just hope we can find it without further bloodshed.

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6 Responses to “Neo-eugenics – the ethics of pre-natal screening”

  1. Evil Rocks says:

    Or regulation! The liberal state desires fingers in every American pie, and I grow weary of such nanny-statism and interference in my personal life. Will the government try to tell me that I can screen for some things and not others? Will the liberal state decide that the best solution to the ethical questions raised by technology is more government?

    It’s a rhetorical question, with the answer, “Of course”.

  2. Apesofmath says:

    “If science isn’t for improving the quality of life of as many people as possible, then what is it for?”

    Do people with Down’s Syndrome not have a high quality of life? Isn’t quality of life subjective? By imposing your own qualifications for such a subjective thing onto others your crossing into the territory of cultural superiority.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Which is why I tried to emphasise the point that everyone should be able to make their own choices, Apes, though I’ll admit I could probably have done a better job of it. It should be a parent’s right to choose whether to carry a Down’s child to term, and no one else’s. You might consider them selfish or immoral if they chose not to, but it’s they who’ll have to live with having done it (or not) for the rest of their lives.

    But to turn your question back on you, is it prejudicial to people with disabilities to want to make disabilities less likely to occur? Is recognising that their condition causes difficulties that the rest of us are fortunate enough not to face in our day-to-day lives, and thinking that less people living under such unchosen restraints would be for a greater utilitarian good, inherently insulting to them? How is that different to providing wheelchairs or live-in care (or whatever else) to give them the best opportunities to enjoy their lives? These are genuine questions, by the way; ethics being what it is, the logic is clear to me, but I recognise that it works differently for others and I’d be interested to understand your train of thought.

  4. mkilory says:

    Apesofmath, why do you think quality of life is subjective?

  5. EyeCeyE says:

    In response to mkilory: why do you think quality of life is subjective? Have you not read about the stories of comatose patients who’s family have considered whether to pull the plug or not, having utilised new technology in the form of microchips in the brain itself, enabled the patient to respond to verbal questioning, when asked, the patient stated, ‘i do NOT want to die.’ My point is, that although you may perceive a life to have quality or not, it is purely subjective.

  6. Theo says:

    The matter is ultimately simple: all humans want to be happy, and happiness is measured in quality of life.

    People should have free-will to decide what does this mean for them and their children – for children are (for good or bad) bound to their parents opinions. Any interference is unacceptable in a democratic country – even if it is from a religious perspective (and, then again, religion is just another set of beliefs, and we are free to believe).

    I try to see this beyong taboo and prejudice. There is no point in bringing to life a kid with severe psychological disorders, or keeping alive someone in permanent coma. As a father, I would want my children to have the best genes as possible.