Friday, May 18, 2007

In England, it now seems, a baby can be aborted for not being pretty enough. Maybe this was inevitable as genetic screening and techniques such as ultrasound advanced.

The London Daily Telegraph Web site reports that the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has licensed a fertility clinic to screen embryos for a genetic defect that causes a severe squint.

A squint? The aborting of babies with undesired characteristics is hardly new. In China, where people have a strong preference for boys, so many female babies have been aborted that a serious imbalance between the sexes exists. Babies with fatal conditions have been aborted. We now seem to have invented cosmetic abortion.

The man to whom the license was granted, professor Gedis Grudzinskas, was asked whether he would screen babies for hair color. He replied that hair color “can be a cause of bullying, which can lead to suicide. With the agreement of the HFEA, I would do it.”

As medical genetics advances, it will become possible to predict more and more characteristics of an unborn child — hair color, height, likelihood of obesity, perhaps intelligence. Presumably, it will then be possible to try again and again until you get your ideal baby.

This is strange territory. The list of techniques lengthens: artificial insemination, sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, DNA screening for abortion and cloning just around the corner. Selective abortion might be called passive genetic engineering. Though it is further in the future, design from scratch by genetic manipulation looks possible in principle.

The idea of matching a child, or a soon-to-be child, against a checklist to decide whether to keep it struck me as repellant, but I wasn’t sure why.

I asked several friends what they thought. Their reaction was pretty much mine. One woman made a face and just said, “Creepy.” Yes, but why?

These people weren’t against abortion in general. If abortion is all right because you don’t want a baby at all, why is it unsettling to have an abortion because you don’t want a particular baby?

Increasing biological knowledge raises a lot of ethical questions that didn’t exist before. For example, it used to be that if you suffered severe brain damage in an accident, you died. Today, medical machinery can keep a body alive when the brain is dead. It might make sense to unplug the victim when there is clearly no one home, but that’s euthanasia, and where do you draw the line?

Similar questions come up in the case of premature babies. In the past, babies more than somewhat premature just died. Today medical science can keep extremely premature children alive, including crack babies with grave defects. Some of them are nightmarishly deformed. Where do you draw the line?

Mr. Grudzinskas further said that “he would seek to screen for any genetic factor at all that would cause a family severe distress.”

Here is another step into a curious future. First, screening tried to eliminate babies who had some inevitably fatal disorder, like cystic fibrosis. Then Mr. Grudzinskas gets a license to screen for a condition that would be unpleasant, specifically an ugly squint. Now he wants to screen for anything that might make mommy and daddy unhappy. Maybe the child screens to be healthy and in fact brilliant, but maybe daddy can’t stand nerds, or the DNA says the child might be overweight.

This makes abortion begin to sound like a branch of psychotherapy, and child-bearing like shopping.

“Creepy” isn’t a scientific term, but maybe it fits.

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