Monday, June 26, 2006

Playing god

Last week British scientists announced a revolutionary screening process for inherited diseases in embryos. It will be quicker and more accurate than the existing method and it will detect thousands more genetic defects than previously possible.

About 200 heritable conditions can be detected by pre-implantation diagnosis in IVF treatment so that only healthy embryos are implanted in the mother or frozen; the new technique -- pre-implantation genetic haplotyping -- will be able to detect nearly 6,000 diseases and conditions. As one of the British pioneers said, this changes everything. One could almost call it godlike.

What it means is that thousands of parents who are at known risk of passing on terrible disabilities and diseases will now be able to have only healthy babies. (The Times)

Of course, this will be at the expense of throwing away many, many "defective" babies. Regular IVF already discards many embryos for the one that succeeds. Improved screening, for "nearly 6,000 diseases and conditions" -- it boggles the mind. How many babies will make the cut?

Now, let's trot out some worse-case scenarios that this innovation will avoid.

Those who don’t know about it can perhaps hardly imagine the drawn out suffering of Huntington’s disease or Duchenne muscular dystrophy or Prader-Willi syndrome or Fragile X, both for the people affected and for their families, until death puts an end to it.

So here are four conditions, let's say for the sake of argument, that should be avoided at all costs. What are the other 5996?

Nature is astonishingly cruel. Science, by contrast, has the power of mercy.


This is indeed playing God, as all the usual campaigners were quick to point out last week. But what on earth is wrong with humans playing God? I am all for it, especially as God doesn’t seem to be doing it.

Humans playing god would hold some appeal to me if (a) results were guaranteed, (b) mistakes would not occur and (c) moral compromises were not made. IVF in general does not meet my conditions and it appears that this new innovation only magnifies its deficiencies ten-fold.

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