Pre-Natal Genetic Testing Breakthrough: "Who Deserves to Be Born"


The New York Times is reporting on its front page a new scientific breakthrough in which a non-invasive technique can be used to sequence nearly the entire genome of a fetus. Basically, the team of researchers led by Jay Shendure at the University of Washington can find the entire complement of a fetus' genes floating around in the bloodstream of the woman who is bearing it. The Times reports:

The accomplishment heralds an era in which parents might find it easier to know the complete DNA blueprint of a child months before it is born.

That would allow thousands of genetic diseases to be detected prenatally. But the ability to know so much about an unborn child is likely to raise serious ethical considerations as well. It could increase abortions for reasons that have little to do with medical issues and more to do with parental preferences for traits in children.

That's right—the Times jumps immediately to highlighting the uses of a new technology—potential parental preferences for non-disease traits—that might provoke opposition to it based people's natural preferences for the status quo. And what's an article without a portentous quote from some bioethicist about how fraught with moral issues the new technology is. In this case, left-wing bioluddite Marcy Darnovsky obliges: 

"There are some scenarios that are extremely troubling," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, a public interest group in Berkeley, Calif. The tests will spur questions on "who deserves to be born," she said.

This new breakthrough clearly implicates the abortion debate and the question of when a person becomes a person. H&R readers and commenters: let's just stipulate what we each believe about that and contemplate the odd notion of "deserves to be born."

Nobody "deserves" to be born. The advent of each one of us is entirely contingent on decisions made by our parents (and their parents and then their parents and so on down to the origin of life and the Big Bang) over which we had absolutely no say. For example, I marvel at the fact that my parents met at a New Year's party in 1953, got married two months later, and then I was born on November 23. Had they delayed their wedding one week, I would never have existed. New technologies associated with reproduction just add more contigencies to the birth of any specific individual. Of course, once born, people deserve to be treated morally by others. 

In the future when the technology is perfected and much cheaper, should would-be parents be allowed to take advantage of it? Yes, I argue in my 2001 column, Sex Selection, where I explained: 

So should parents be permitted to select traits other than the sex of their children? Few aspects of human development are more significant than one's sex; it's a central fact of one's identity as a human being. If it is ethically permissible for parents to make that choice, the case for letting them make less significant genetic choices for their offspring is already made. (Keep in mind that we are not talking about directly manipulating the genetic makeup of any individual. We're talking about permitting parents to test and choose among embryos for those traits they believe will give their children their best chances in life.)

Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu is right when he reminds us, "The Nazis sought to interfere directly in people's reproductive decisions (by forcing them to be sterilized) to promote social ideals, particularly around racial superiority. Not offering selection for nondisease genes would indirectly interfere (by denying choice) to promote social ideals such as equality or 'population welfare.' There is no relevant difference between direct and indirect eugenics. The lesson we learned from eugenics is that society should be loath to interfere (directly and indirectly) in reproductive decisionmaking."