As we were just talking about the appeals court ruling that isolated genes are still patentable
, we will have to begin thinking about how such a ruling will impact our lives. Some groups have decided to go the property rights route to assign ownership
of DNA. Others wring their hands over how this will impact medicine. But, now that testing for genetic markers in embryos is in vogue, we can finally ask "what about the children?"
The Telegraph put that question to Professor Julian Savulescu, expert in practical ethics at Oxford, and he states, unequivocally, that not only should the genetic testing of embryos for physical illnesses be allowed, but applying those same tests for behavioral genetic markers is mankind's ethical obligation
. It should be noted that, currently, outside of a few accepted tests these screenings are illegal, but Savulescu thinks that needs to change.
"Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?" wrote Prof Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor in practical ethics. "So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice."
There is a word for this kind of mass-screening, one which you won't hear Savulescu utter, and it is called eugenics
. The reason many advocates of this kind of screening won't use that word is because it long ago became associated with Nazi philosophy, even though (as you can read in the Wiki article) many other nations did and still do some flavor of eugenics. The United States, for example, has some jurisdictions where testing for diseases (mostly STDs) that could be passed along to children is a requirement prior to attaining a marriage license. Israel has a program called Dor Yeshorim that tests for a multitude of hereditary diseases like Tay-Sachs and Cystic fibrosis. In China, eugenics has taken a more prominent role, with the PRC's Marriage Law requiring a doctor's approval prior to marriage (harsher language against specific illnesses found in previous iterations of the law have been removed over the years).
But what is different about Savulescu's argument is that we are no longer talking about genetic illnesses in the traditional sense, but instead behavioral genetic markers.
"Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children. They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others."
This seems to me to be a gross-oversimplification of the role genetics plays in behavior. While we can all spend the next few weeks in a long-form discussion of whether nature or nurture plays the predominant role in behavioral outcomes of children, I think few would disagree that both are aspects that do
in fact play some role. And, while Savulescu seems to make his argument matter-of-factly, other bioethicists disagree. Predictably, many of these criticisms focus on Nazi eugenics to extrapolate the entire field, but not all of them.
Biologists, for instance, point to what occurs in small, isolated populations (i.e. the Dodo bird) when a lack of genetic diversity leads directly to a species extinction. They then point out that the combination of allowing for "designer babies" based on widely accepted culturally preferred traits and the perhaps inevitable monoculture
that would result would breed a scenario in which mankind was ripe for massive exposure to a single disease.
Add to all of this the potential for inherent socio-economic lines to be drawn in the sand in terms of health, between those that can afford the testing for what are now patentable isolated genes and those that cannot, and you can see where potential abuse and negative consequences loom around every corner.
That said, I refuse to take a luddite approach to genetic testing in general, or even eugenics as a whole. I admit that I write this entire piece without fully understanding where I stand on the issue, aside from what I think is the rather common sense position of advocating caution. Instead, I open the topic to you, the reader, for the comments section.