Friday, March 06, 2009

Don't Let Your Embryos Out Of Your Sight

In the dystopia, Brave New World, Huxley foresees a world where humans have been genetically modified to fit certain strata of society, and have become slaves to their own technology. In the film (and book), Gattaca, a similar society is on display in which the genetically advantaged have all the social advantages anyone needs, just by virtue of their DNA. I once tried to describe the Gattaca plot to someone who simply laughed at me and the “ridiculous” premise. That was a few years ago. My how things change.

A fertility clinic, Fertility Institutes, is making headlines along with other IVF providers for a procedure called prenatal genetic screening (PGD). A process that has actually been around for a while, it allows families to take a peek into the genetics of their pre-born children to check for genetic diseases and other traits tied to genetics. The difference now is, Fertility Institutes and others are promising and providing screening procedures for gender and cosmetic traits. This means you can choose the embryo of your choice with all the right physical features, and not just all the right genetic tendencies.

From their website:

In addition to our renown infertility and in vitro fertilization services, we are the world's largest and most successful 100% gender selection program and offer very popular egg donor and surrogacy options.

From a news piece on the Fox website:

It isn't clear that Fertility Institutes can yet deliver on its claims of trait selection. But the growth of PGD, unfettered by any state or federal regulations in the U.S., has accelerated genetic knowledge swiftly enough that pre-selecting cosmetic traits in a baby is no longer the stuff of science fiction.

But Fertility Institutes disagrees. "This is cosmetic medicine," says Jeff Steinberg, director of the clinic that is advertising gender and physical trait selection on its Web site. "Others are frightened by the criticism but we have no problems with it."

At a certain level, this is already fairly commonplace in some contexts.

Embryo screening, for example, is sometimes used to create a genetically matched "savior sibling" — a younger sister or brother whose healthy cells can be harvested to treat an older sibling with a serious illness.

Trait selection in babies "is a service," says Dr. Steinberg. "We intend to offer it soon."

From the PHG Foundation website dedicated to this kind of news:

A US fertility clinic is reportedly offering patients undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) selection for or against cosmetic traits such as eye, hair and skin colour. The embryos produced by IVF are screened for chromosomal abnormalities prior to implantation (see previous news), with an option for sex selection, and now parents will also be offered additional screening for certain physical features (presumably for an additional fee) as well as for “potentially lethal diseases” and “cancer tendencies”

Hitherto, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) has been limited to determination of the presence or absence of a genetic variant associated with a serious form of disease; in the UK, this is the only permitted use of the technique, which is carefully regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)

In the US, services providing PGD are subject to voluntary regulation.

The growth of this technology and the growing acceptance of the uses of this technology requires ethical reflection, cultural and political action, and education. As presented on the website and in the news pieces concerning Fertility Institutes and other organizations of the like, these applications of technology need to stop. A few things require reflection.

First, the IVF procedure is the Pandora’s Box technology. It promises great things, but it opens the door to unethical technologies. In the typical IVF, several fertilized embryos are created which means the “leftovers” can be experimented on, frozen, or destroyed. When a fertility clinic speaks of choosing the best children for parents, what they mean is they destroy the unacceptable unborn children. IVF is eugenic abortion writ-large.

Second, this technology is available only to those who can afford it. This means designer children for the rich, and natural children for the not-so-rich. In addition, this presents questions about government control and regulation, and if it becomes seen as a “right,” does this mean taxpayer dollars will be used to destroy unacceptable embryos?

Third, this is generational slavery. When we choose the cosmetic traits for our children, we impose upon them our current standards of what looks good or healthy.

Fourth, there is no really good definition for the difference between therapy and enhancement. In other words, can you adequately define the difference between fixing what went wrong and purely “cosmetic” procedures? If we can replace or genetically aid a diseased or underperforming eye, for instance, we probably should. What happens if the genetic enhancement becomes stronger and more acute than the natural product? Should we genetically enhance embryos so their eyes will be better than nature intended? Should height be “fixed”? Skin color? Gender is being “fixed” right now – are you OK with that?

Fifth, the answers to all these questions and thousands more rely on a good definition of human nature. The predominant philosophies running our scientific and political organizations, however, don’t have one. And when there is no good, unmovable definition of human nature humanity becomes pliable and subject to the whims of technology, instead of the other way around.

Christian thinkers need to continue to stand up and say these technologies need to stop and be subject to sound ethical thinking before they are implemented. It is not the case that just because we can do it, we should.

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