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FIRST PERSON: Genetic testing is a deadly business

CHICAGO (BP)–Prenatal genetic testing has reached a new low.

On Thursday, June 8, 2001, researchers announced that the first baby was born who had been screened for a disease, one he may never have contracted.

Doctors at Chicago’s Reproductive Genetics Institute performed preimplantation genetic diagnosis on eighteen embryos whose father carried the gene for Li-Fraumeni syndrome, an inherited predisposition to many forms of cancer because of a mutation in a tumor-suppressing gene called P53. The results showed that eleven embryos carried the gene and seven did not. Two of the seven embryos without the P53 gene were implanted in the mother’s uterus. One baby boy was born.

The report was silent about what happened to the other embryos. What we do know is that at least one died after implantation. The other embryos are either being kept in cold storage, were used in research, or were destroyed because they did not measure up to what their parents and doctors thought was a life worth living.

The parents of the newborn baby boy have been deluded by the new technopians — those who think that technology will usher in a world free of disease, death, and problems. These parents doubtless believe that by using prenatal genetic diagnosis and embryo selection, they have dodged the cancer bullet for their child. Yet, that is wishful thinking. The P53 gene may cause some cancers, but there are many other forms of cancer that are not.

Furthermore, cancer is not always lethal. In fact, the father, who is 38 years old, is a cancer survivor.

Tragically, prenatal genetic diagnosis did not lead to improved health or higher quality of life for seventeen offspring. These seventeen were prevented from having the opportunity to live — an opportunity that the father enjoyed and he himself a cancer survivor. So, the life of one child was purchased with the lives of the seventeen, all as a precaution against a predisposition.

Using prenatal genetic diagnosis and embryo selection to deal with illnesses for which there is no treatment or cure is a high-tech example of a very old practice known as eugenics. Oddly, “eu” means good and “genics” refers to genetics, the blueprint for life.

Americans practiced eugenics at the turn of the 20th century. At that time the only way to prevent the birth of so-called “defectives,” “imbeciles,” and “feebleminded,” was to sterilize those who might pass on their disease to their offspring. Mandatory eugenic sterilizations increased from just over 3,000 in 1907 to over 21,000 in 1937.

When German scientists saw our “success” with eugenics, they lamented the fact that it was illegal in their own country. When Hitler came to power, eugenics not only became acceptable, but required. To be truly successful in keeping the undesirables from mating, however, they had to be killed. We know the rest of that gruesome story. After the atrocities of Nazism, American eugenics went underground. Today, eugenics is raising its ugly head with a vengeance and comes dressed in a white lab coat. But is it really kinder and gentler? Not by a long shot.

Instead of keeping people from reproducing, the new eugenics allows reproduction but mandates the destruction of the offspring who do not meet the quality standards of the new eugenicists. Because human embryos cannot gain standing in court, they cannot plead their own cause, as did many of the mentally retarded in the earlier eugenics movement. Because they are such young members of the human family, their destruction is defended by the technopians.

If children who have the P53 gene are destroyed today, who is next? Those with a propensity for diabetes? Those who might be more prone to Alzheimers? Or, what about those who have the gene for male pattern baldness? Since every human being carries some defective or anomalous genes, where does this madness stop?

Perhaps we should learn the lessons history teaches. Eugenic selection is a heinous assault on human dignity. We cannot permit the destruction of our tiniest kin. After all, who knows who will be the next victim of the eugenicists scorn?

    “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.

    Then came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

— Pastor Martin Niemoeller from a Nazi Concentration Camp

Mitchell is a senior fellow of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Ill. He also serves as consultant on bioethics for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

    About the Author

  • C. Ben Mitchell

    C. Ben Mitchell is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., as well as research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

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