An article in The Chronicle Telegram (a local paper for northeast Ohio) had an article in Sunday’s paper titled, “The ethics of paring genes.” Naturally, my mom cut the article out and mailed it to me…she’s good at mailing anything with the word gene in it.
In summary, the article is exposing the recent rise in genetic testing as part of routine prenatal studies and how it’s almost eradicating many inherited diseases like Tay-Sach’s, dysautonomia and cystic fibrosis.
Marilynn Marchione, the author, looks at many numbers—the number of babies born with these diseases, percentages of decreases, amount of couples being tested. One huge factor she stumbles on (really it’s a minor note in the article) is screening embryos. I’d never heard of this and a description in the article is lacking (that’s issue #2) so I did some research. In-vitro fertilization is performed and when the embryo reaches the eight-cell mark, a single cell is removed and the DNA analyzed. If one or more disease-associated genetic alteration is found, that embryo is terminated. Only embryos without mutations are implanted into the womb. In some rare cases, individuals who choose to screen decide to go “all-out” choosing not only a mutation-free embryo but also one with a particular hair or eye color. Legal? Yes. Ethical?... Marchione briefly mentions eugenics and selective breeding after addressing “hot button issues” like abortion and embryo destruction which she returns to later in the article. But not eugenics. Not only does she not revert back to it later, she never describes what it is, so here goes: eugenics is the study or belief in a master race; undergoing “…measures to improve the innate humankind…solv[ing] the problems which face our species” as the Future Generations website claims. But is it right? Sure, eradicating diseases like cystic fibrosis and thalassemia may be a good thing but a “master race?” Improving future generations through genetic screening for higher intelligence and moral character? Can you screen for that? Regardless, is it ethical to select for particular traits, say, blond hair + blue eyes (shameful Hitler reference, sorry). I think Dr. Barron Lerner, a Columbia University medical historian hit the nail on the head: “If a society is so willing to screen aggressively to find these genes and then to potentially to have abort the fetuses, what does that say about the value of the lives of those people living with the disease?”
My mom highlighted a number of things in the articles and sticky-noted questions she had. Most of her questions asked what the author was talking about—genetic testing and embryo screening, which had little to no description of how these procedures were being done. At the very end, my clever madre stickey-noted, “wouldn’t there just be different mutations later on?” STOP. THINK. If the world eradicated the aforementioned inherited diseases, would there just be different, potentially worse mutations later on? Better yet, how would we test for them? Are we selecting for a master race or a race of potentially worse, undetectable mutations? What is considered a mutation worthy of abortion?
Looking at a personal example: Red hair. There’s less than 5% of natural redheads left in the world. Perhaps it’s our higher rate of anemia (losing iron to our hair?) or the need for a higher dose of anesthesia (survival of the fittest)? Regardless, in 2005, many scientists believed that by 2100 a natural redhead would be hard to come-by, if not extinct. UNTIL eugenics. Selecting for red hair? Selecting for anemia? I’m not saying I agree or disagree with this process. Eradicating inherited diseases sounds great but will it have more horrible consequences? Better yet, are we selecting for things without knowing how they’ll effect society as a whole? Will the world end up Blond haired and blue eyed like Hitler wanted?