Scientists recently announced that they are perfecting a maternal blood test that will permit technologists to map the entire genome of the developing fetus. Unlike amniocentesis, which requires the insertion of a needle into the womb to obtain amniotic fluid, the test would come earlier in the pregnancy and put the fetus at no risk—unless that is, it reveals unwanted genetic conditions or propensities. In such cases, the fetus’s very life would suddenly be at material and immediate risk.
In a culture in which all people are valued equally regardless of their health or capacities, fetal genetic testing would be a splendid way to reveal the need for prenatal treatments or to allow parents time to prepare for a child with special needs. That’s precisely how Todd and Sarah Palin reacted when the learned their youngest child Trig has Down syndrome. Long before he was born, they absorbed the emotional shock and then joyfully welcomed their son with open arms.
But such unconditional love cuts against the current cultural zeitgeist of our times. Consider: About 90 percent of fetuses testing for genetic conditions such as Down and dwarfism are terminated to the moral support, if not outright cheering, of much of society. It may seem harsh to say, but it is true nonetheless: We are in the midst of a great eugenic cleansing in which diagnosed imperfection often favors abortion.
There may even be overt pressure on parents to terminate from friends, family, and the medical community. The anti “defectives” message is vividly clear. When news came out in 2008 about the birth of Trig, Dr. André Lalonde, executive vice-president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada, groused that it could dissuade women from terminating, telling the Globe and Mail, “The worry is that this will have an implication for abortion issues in Canada.” After studies showed that genetic counselors most often push women toward abortion when their fetuses test positive for Down, the late Ted Kennedy (D, MA) and Sam Brownback (R, KS) jointly authored a bill requiring “neutrality” in genetic counseling. Meanwhile, an Oregon jury recently awarded a couple $2.9 million after learning that the parents would have aborted their Down daughter but for botched prenatal testing.
Eugenic abortion is only part of the problem. Embryos created through IVF are often genetically tested before implantation, with the genetically unwanted thrown out as mere medical waste or turned over to biotechnologists for rending and research. True, some of these tests seek to prevent terrible diseases such as Huntington’s. But some embryos have been destroyed because they have a genetic propensity to adult onset cancer. We have also seen IVF clinics advertising to cull embryos for purely cosmetic reasons, such as hair color. Sex selection embryo sorting and abortion are now a reality. The list goes on and on.
A cultural expectation is forming in which people believe they not only have a fundamental right to have a baby, but the concomitant right to have the baby they want—and by any technological means necessary. Worse, with genetic tests growing ever more sophisticated the potential that the fertility industrial complex will one day offer special order Gattaca-type babies is very real. (Gattaca depicts a future in which genetic engineering of embryos is universal and people considered genetically inferior are relegated to the fringes of society.)
Missing in the eugenics quest for perfection are the many significant would-have-been contributors to society we might prevent from being born. Indeed, we can easily trace who could have been lost had our contemporary technological prowess been developed a few hundred years earlier. Beethoven might never have born considering his destined deafness. If Lincoln was bi-polar or had the genetic condition known as Marfan’s syndrome, as some have speculated, he might well have been “selected out” in the hope that Tom and Nancy Lincoln’s next baby would have a less troubled nature. For that matter, the embryonic Winston Churchill might have been terminated when his genetic screeners warned his parents that he would have a predisposition for alcoholism. Similarly, Mother Teresa might have never been born had her parents known she would be diminutive and plain. Ditto Toulouse-Lautrec. And what if homosexuality turns out to have a determinable genetic component? There might never have been an Oscar Wilde.
Think about the everyday people whose absences would make our lives so much less full: The wise-cracking waitress with the club foot who makes Saturday morning breakfasts such a joy; the teacher whose students laugh at her speech impairment behind her back only to discover later that she changed their lives; the developmentally disabled man whose loving and selfless nature makes him the community favorite; the devoted father, like the late journalist and Bush Press Secretary (and my good friend) Tony Snow, who gave so much to his family and society before dying far too young from genetically-implicated colon cancer.
What a bitter irony. We claim to extol diversity and tolerance more than at any other time in human history—as we unleash a merciless reproductive pogrom to eradicate imperfection from the human condition.
That’s a crying shame. If I were to pick one human attribute to extol above all others, it wouldn’t be high intelligence, good looks, or athletic prowess—the usual targets for human improvement. Rather, I believe the most crucial human attribute is our capacity to love.
Nearly 2000 years ago, St. Paul wrote, “And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Who among us exhibit a greater unconditional love capacity than our brothers and sisters with Down syndrome? To the extent that they and other “defectives” are unwelcome among us can be measured our own deficiencies as a society.