Screening Life

Tests Lead to Elimination of the “Unfit”

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, FEB. 1, 2009 ( Not long after the nativity scenes were dismantled after the Christmas holidays, debate broke out in England over selective abortions of children with genetic problems.

Research carried out by the autism research center at Cambridge University raised the possibility of being able to detect unborn babies likely to suffer from autism, reported the Guardian newspaper Jan. 12.

The researchers found a link between high levels of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women with autistic traits in a group of 235 children they studied.

"If there was a prenatal test for autism, would this be desirable?” Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the research team, told the Guardian. What would we lose if children with autistic spectrum disorder were eliminated from the population?" he asked.

Tests for autism before birth could have some positive results, the article noted. According to the National Autistic Society it would assist parents to prepare and get support for their child.

Accompanying the article announcing the research findings the Guardian published a testimony by Charlotte Moore, who brought up two autistic sons, George and Sam.

Charlotte acknowledged the burdens bringing up an autistic child places on parents, and she expressed a fear that many mothers would abort such a child if tests were available, as currently happens with Down syndrome children.

She would not, however, contemplate aborting an autistic child, Charlotte argued. “Our family life is as rich and as meaningful as any other; my sons' lives are not tragic, and nor is mine,” she argued. “A society that aims to remove all the variables that make human life so fascinatingly complex is not a society I want to live in,” Charlotte concluded.

Cancer free

The news about autism came just after the announcement of the birth of the first child in Britain that was genetically selected to be free of a gene linked to breast cancer. According to a Jan. 10 report in the Scotsman newspaper a couple went through fertility treatment at University College London and the embryos went through the process of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to ensure it did not contain the BRCA1 gene.

Women with this genetic variation have an 80% risk of developing breast cancer the article commented.

The Scotsman also reported concerns expressed by Michaela Aston, from the Life charity. "Life celebrates all new life and welcomes this child into the world,” she said.

"However, we are greatly concerned for the loss of those embryos discarded as not being considered worthy of life,” Aston continued. “We need to remember that we are more than the sum of our genes."

The news also attracted the attention of William Saletan, writing in the American online Slate magazine. In his Jan. 14 commentary Saletan pointed out the verbal dishonesty of the press release from University College London.

"First baby tested for breast cancer form BRCA1 before conception born in UK," it said. Saletan explained that the tests took place, however, at the embryonic state and that the baby was one of 11 tested, of which 9 were discarded. Two were then implanted, with one baby resulting.

Word games

“We now call such tests 'preconception.' This is the next step in our gradual devaluation of embryos,” Saletan reflected. Early embryos were termed “pre-embryos” to make it more acceptable to use them in scientific experiments, and now we change the meaning of the word conception.

“Don't fret about the six eggs we fertilized, rejected, and flushed in selecting this baby. They were never really conceived. In fact, they weren't embryos,” Saletan continued.

He then went on to point out that if the child had been conceived naturally she would have had a 50% chance of inheriting the defective gene. Then, if she did inherit the gene there would be a risk of breast cancer of 50% - 85%, and even then it could be detected and cured.

“Embryo screening is advancing from guaranteed, fatal childhood disease to potential, survivable adult diseases,” Saletan lamented.

Screening of this sort seems set to rapidly expand. Just a few days later, on Jan. 18, the Scotland on Sunday newspaper announced that hundreds of Scottish couples will soon be offered screening in order to create “designer babies” free from genetic diseases.

A Scottish testing service will be launched later this year by the Glasgow Center for Reproductive Medicine (GCRM). Embryos will be tested for one of 200 genes behind inherited conditions including cancers and cystic fibrosis.

The center will then implant only embryos guaranteed free of a specific genetic fault, charging 5,500 pounds for each round of treatment. Up until now such services were available in England, but not north of the border.

"This is not a cure for any disease, but a way of destroying those afflicted at the earliest stage of life. It is completely unethical and shouldn't be supported," an un-named spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland told the newspaper.

Slippery slope

A subsequent article on tests carried out on the unborn raised fears about further destruction of unborn life. On Jan. 25 the Sunday Times reported that paternity tests are now being carried out on unborn children by some DNA laboratories.

Such tests, the article explained, enables mothers to abort the children if it turns out they are the result of an extramarital affair.

According to the article DNA Solutions, the biggest provider of genetic tests in the United Kingdom, currently performs up to 500 prenatal paternity tests each year. The Sunday Times also noted that the company acknowledges that some of the women using its test will probably go on to abort the baby if it turns out it has the “wrong” father.

Josephine Quintavalle, founder of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “This is very worrying indeed. It is obvious that those taking the test may then want an abortion. Those offering this test are encouraging ‘solutions’ of that kind.”

Women undergoing tests to detect genetic or paternal problems may want to reflect on the testimony of Victoria Lambert, who wrote an article on her experience of having aborted a handicapped baby in the Jan. 3 edition of the Daily Mail newspaper.

Her child had Patau’s syndrome, also known as trisomy 13, and while many of them die at birth or shortly after some can survive into early adulthood.

Aborting her child was an experience that left her with deep scars, Lambert wrote. “Put simply: my decision and its consequences have tortured me for the past nine years.”

Lambert then went on to describe how after subsequent miscarriages some years later she conceived again, when she was nearly 40 years old. When she was offered a scan at a hospital she refused.

“It dawned on me that once we had decided not to go ahead with tests for Down's or anything else, I had stopped worrying about how our child would turn out,” she said. “She was going to be our baby; and as long as she was born alive, everything else could be dealt with,” Lambert commented.

While more antenatal tests may thrill scientists there is a grave danger, she concluded, “that the very ease and simplicity of the tests make life-and-death decisions too easy to take -- and to regret.”

“Concern for eugenics or public health cannot justify any murder, even if commanded by public authority,” notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2268). Ironically, while public opinion is increasingly against the death penalty for guilty criminals, it sanctions death for the innocent unborn.