The other day I heard about a man whose family history was riddled with colon cancer. His father and uncles and other relatives all had suffered from the disease, and it was clear that he, too, had that genetic disposition. When he and his new wife decided they wanted to have children, they were naturally concerned.
For them the solution lay in a new process called PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) that would allow them to avoid the tragedies that had befallen others in their family. Doctors harvest a number of eggs from the female, fertilize them with the sperm of the male and produce embryos that can be tested for any number of things, including the genes that produce certain diseases.
In this case, several embryos had the cancer-causing gene and several didn’t, allowing the couple to choose a “clean” embryo for implantation and destroy those with the bad gene, freeing the couple from the constant concern about their child’s future — at least when it came to medical heritage.
Having faced the exact same family problem and actually survived a close call, I regarded the couple’s decision as not only sound and sensible but also ethically correct. Why, when it is not necessary, bring a flawed being into this world?
But this is not the view of those who regard life as beginning whenever an egg is fertilized in or out of the womb and becomes an embryo. The destruction of embryos once again is the issue.
The chorus of opposition to this procedure has just begun, and as its popularity grows, so will the noise against it. Right-to-life and evangelical groups will target it as they have abortion, even when a mother’s life is at stake or when rape or incest is involved.
Opponents to this research contend that one should take what God gives and make no effort to change it. But that viewpoint seems not only unenlightened, but also criminal, when today’s science is capable of eliminating or at least curtailing human tragedy.
Didn’t God give those scientists who developed this and other procedures the brains to make things better for human beings? Isn’t his hand obvious in the efforts to guide his creations to help themselves? Those are questions the opponents to this and nearly every other biological advancement should be weighing against blind adherence to sectarian dogma that should be thousands of years in the past.
In another case cited recently, a young couple’s first child died within a month or so of birth after being diagnosed with a rare condition the parents had no idea was in their own genetic makeup. In fact, there had been no such occurrence previously on either side. The presence of the faulty gene gave them pause when they wanted to try again. So they went the PGD route and discovered that, out of 15 eggs harvested and embryos developed, three were so afflicted. The rest of the embryos could be safely implanted in the wife for normal development. This couple now faces a childbearing future without the specter of disaster. What could possibly be wrong or immoral with that?
The fear about these procedures is that they will be misused, that prospective parents will use PGD to dictate the gender of their baby or even to decide what color its eyes and hair will be. Certainly there should be controls and ethical standards, as there are for any such activity. Building monsters is the last thing anyone wants and the research should be closely monitored.
But women who must carry the burden of childbirth have the right to do everything humanly possible to make certain the fruit of that difficult labor is strong and healthy. Those with no interest in the matter (especially uninvolved men) should not force them to take chances when there is no need. It literally is no one’s business but the parents’ in these cases, and it is despicable to make them feel guilty for availing themselves of a life-saving procedure.
Unfortunately, that seems to matter very little to those who are constantly trying to foist their idea of morality on the rest of us, telling us how we must conduct our lives when they have no authority to do so. They have no more certainty about when life actually begins than any of us.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)