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LIFE DIGEST: British children with ‘squint’ eyes now are targets of embryo testing

WASHINGTON (BP)–Even a child whose eyes don’t look in precisely the same direction has a life not worth living in Great Britain.

A British government agency that regulates fertility issues has granted permission for a London clinic to screen embryos to make sure none with what is known as squint is permitted to be born, according to the BBC. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) issued a license for the clinic to screen out embryos with the condition for a couple in which the father has a severe squint that causes his eyes to look down or sideways. The man’s father also has the condition.

The news marked an ominous milestone -– supposedly the first embryo screening for a cosmetic flaw.

Pro-life bioethicists deplored the decision, as did some who normally support the use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) in life-endangering situations.

Wesley Smith, a bioethics specialist in the United States, bemoaned the slippery slope represented in the HFEA decision.

“[W]e have fallen a long way off the moral cliff in a very short time, from tossing away embryos with genetic defects for serious illness in infancy, to tossing them away because they are the wrong sex, to destroying those with a genetic propensity to adult onset cancer,” Smith wrote on the weblog at bioethics.com. “And now, with the inevitability of sun in summer, embryos in Brave New Britain are [to] be selected out if the future child would have … squinted.”

David King, director of Human Genetics Alert and a molecular biologist, said, according to BBC News, “I really do think that this has gone a good deal too far because this condition, despite being, admittedly, perhaps somewhat disabling doesn’t shorten life in any way. The HFEA has ignored public opinion and has ignored its own rules which say that PGD should only be allowed for serious medical conditions.”

The director of the London Bridge Fertility, Gynaecology and Genetics Centre, which gained the license from the HFEA, told BBC News it was more than a cosmetic condition.

“Whereas we all know somebody who’s got a squint, in this particular condition the muscles that control the gaze of direction of the eyes [are] grossly abnormal, so the gaze of the eye might be 90 degrees different from the direction which one might be looking, so to speak, the direction of one’s face,” Gedis Grudzinskas said.

Grudzinskas is not opposed to using PGD for cosmetic reasons, however.

“We will increasingly see the use of embryo screening for severe cosmetic conditions,” he said, according to The Telegraph, a British online newspaper.

The clinic director said he would be willing to try for permission to test for any genetic factor that would produce severe distress in a family.

When asked about hair color, Grudzinskas said, “If there is a cosmetic aspect to an individual case I would assess it on its merits. [Hair color] can be a cause of bullying which can lead to suicide. With the agreement of the HFEA, I would do it.

“If a parent suffered from asthma, and it was possible to detect the genetic factor for this, I would do it,” he told The Telegraph. “It all depends on the family’s distress.”

Smith wrote, “Notice that it isn’t even about the future born individual anymore.”

Squint is a condition in which one eye can be looking in the direction in which a person is facing and the other eye is looking up, down, left or right.

PGD is a method in which a cell is removed from an eight-cell embryo and tested for a variety of genetic conditions.

STILL ONE SHORT -– The Oklahoma Senate has failed a second time to override the veto of a ban on state-funded, elective abortions, again falling a vote short.

The May 9 vote was 31-16. Although opponents of the override lost a vote, supporters still needed another vote to achieve a two-thirds majority and rescind the veto. The first effort at an override resulted in a 31-17 vote April 25.

The bill’s author, Sen. James Williamson of Tulsa, said the “fight on behalf of unborn Oklahomans … will continue.”

“I will continue the effort to override the governor as long as I believe there is a realistic chance to change someone’s mind,” he said in a written release.

Oklahoma law permits multiple override attempts in the same session.

The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma has been urging Southern Baptists in the state to ask senators to vote for the override. The BGCO’s website at www.bgco.org has more information on the override effort.

The legislation, Senate Bill 714, would bar public funds and state-run medical facilities from being used for abortions except when a mother’s life is endangered. The bill would mandate a woman take out an extra health insurance policy to cover an abortion.

Sen. Charlie Laster, a Democrat from Shawnee, switched his vote April 25, enabling Gov. Brad Henry’s veto to stand. Previously, Laster had voted three times in favor of the legislation, including during a 32-16 roll call on final passage.

FUNDS FOR DEATH -– Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed $1 billion in state funds over 10 years for destructive embryonic stem cell experiments and other research.

Patrick, a Democrat, announced the funding initiative May 8, adding his state to several others that have approved or recommended programs in which research is performed resulting in the destruction of embryos. California voters approved in 2004 a $3 billion, 10-year plan for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) and therapeutic cloning. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has presented a $1 billion proposal, and New Jersey is considering a $270 million program.

The Massachusetts plan includes the establishment of a stem cell bank at the University of Massachusetts, according to The Boston Globe. The bank, at an estimated cost of $66 million, would be the first such center in the United States, allowing scientists from throughout the country to experiment on stem cell lines from each other, The Globe reported. Eight universities and hospitals will provide embryonic stem cell lines to the bank.

“It’s almost a lending library,” said University of Massachusetts President Jack Wilson, according to The Globe. “This is a triumph for the governor to have gotten all these proprietary players to the table -– industry, private universities, public universities –- where we put aside our differences. … This is what really distinguishes this proposal from anything else in the United States.”

States have increasingly moved into the ESCR field as a result of President Bush’s policy barring federal funds from being used in research that destroys embryos. Members of Congress have sought to overturn that policy, which was announced in 2001, but have been unable to reverse it.

Extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys the tiny human being.

ESCR advocates contend stem cells from embryos possess more therapeutic potential than their non-embryonic counterparts. Foes of federal funds for ESCR not only oppose such research because it destroys embryos, but they point out embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– has nearly universal support. Such research, which is funded by the federal government, does not harm the donor and has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into tissues and other cells, providing hope for the treatment of numerous afflictions.