TORONTO, NOV. 12, 2005 (Zenit.org).-
A growing demand for "perfect children" is leading to the elimination of
unborn babies with health problems. The Globe and Mail newspaper reported
Oct. 28 that the number of children born with cystic fibrosis has fallen
sharply in recent years.
According to research published in the Journal of Pediatrics, currently 1 in
3,608 babies born in Canada suffer from cystic fibrosis, compared with 1 in
2,714 before a genetic test for this disease existed. "Our hypothesis," Mary
Corey, a senior scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, told
the Globe and Mail, "is that pregnancies are being terminated."
The article also noted that testing is set to increase notably. Officials in
Ontario are planning to test for 21 metabolic conditions, compared with the
two screening tests it now conducts.
Genetic screening is also on the rise in Britain. The London-based Telegraph
newspaper reported July 11 that a method of screening embryos for hemophilia
has been developed.
British doctors at the Clinical Sciences Center in Hammersmith and Queen
Charlotte's Hospital have developed a form of pre-implantation diagnosis to
test embryos conceived through in vitro fertilization for hemophilia.
Previously, embryos could not be tested for hemophilia until they were in
the womb, by means of amniocentesis.
And on Aug. 19 the Times reported that a clinic in London had been given
permission by the government to screen embryos for a gene that can give rise
to retinoblastoma, a form of tumors in the eye. The article noted that the
permission broke new ground, because retinoblastoma is rarely fatal. In
fact, 95% of cases can normally be successfully treated.
The Times reported that groups defending the rights of embryos criticized
the approval. The groups argued that it would lead to the destruction of
embryos that might be perfectly healthy, along with others that could go on
with a high chance of a normal life once their tumor were treated.
The license to conduct the screening went to Paul Serhal, of University
College Hospital. Last year he became the first doctor in Britain permitted
to screen embryos for a gene that causes bowel cancer.
A duty to screen
In Australia, meanwhile, controversy over the use of genetic screening to
eliminate babies broke out when a bioethicist argued that parents have a
moral obligation to use this technology to bear "the best child possible."
The Age newspaper reported June 5 on the comments made by Melbourne-born
Julian Savulescu. He is now the head of Oxford University's Uehiro Center
for Practical Ethics and is also an ethicist at Melbourne's Murdoch
Children's Research Institute.
Savulescu was in Melbourne for the annual dinner of the Australian Society
for Medical Research, where he was awarded its medal for 2005.
He also argued in favor of using screening to test for desirable character
traits. "I think we've got a reason for using (tests) not just to screen out
diseases, but in looking at the kind of characteristics our children are
likely to have," he told the Age. He said that traits such as empathy,
sympathy and fair-mindedness could create more moral people.
Criticism of Savulescu came from Robert Sparrow, of Monash University's
Center for Human Bioethics. In comments published in the Adelaide Advertiser
on June 15, Sparrow pointed out that widespread use of screening could lead
the way to "eugenics by market forces."
"There'll be large pressure on parents to have perfect babies where what
counts as a perfect baby is determined by majority opinion," Sparrow said.
"Parents will pretty quickly work out for themselves that unless they have
the nice, intelligent, tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed child, their child is
going to be less successful in society than other children."
As well, if the birth of children with disabilities becomes perceived as
reflecting a choice of the parents, social attitudes could change and become
less tolerant toward the disabled.
Support for eugenics has a long history. One of the most influential
advocates in modern times was the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret
Sanger. A 2005 book, "Margaret Sanger's Eugenic Legacy: The Control of
Female Fertility," examined her role and the influence it still has.
The carefully researched book, with 75 pages of notes and bibliography,
argues that Sanger (1883-1966) had "a genuine commitment to the eugenic
Sanger's achievements, observes author Angela Franks, has led many feminists
to see her "as a paragon of female achievement against an oppressive order."
Many feminists also consider her as a bringer of freedom, the freedom to
control female fertility, Franks states.
Yet, Franks queries how this image fits in with someone who participated
actively in the eugenics movement and, among other policies, advocated
forced sterilization. Sanger's vision of liberation for women "was too
severely infected with a mindset of oppressive control to be able to promote
true female liberation," Franks argues.
Women's liberation, for Sanger, did not mean the freedom for every woman to
decide, freely, the number of children she desired to have. Rather, it meant
sexual freedom for the "fit."
The corollary of this vision is that certain classes of people should not be
parents and, if they would not embrace this childless state voluntarily, it
should be forced upon them. This view persisted throughout Sanger's life and
to this end Franks cites from a letter written by Sanger in 1955.
In the letter Sanger insists that birth control should be used as a
restriction "for the betterment of the family and the race." This continues
even today, notes Franks, as contraception is still being used to control
Sanger's eugenic attitudes have been institutionalized and perpetuated. This
is not to say, Franks clarifies, that individual supporters of Planned
Parenthood are eugenicists. But there has not been a sufficient reflection
and rejection of this heritage of eugenics in organizations devoted to birth
control, leading to a "lingering elitist bigotry," the author contends.
"Knowingly or not," Planned Parenthood "continues by its words and actions
to perpetuate eugenic beliefs about the poor and about the disabled, albeit
modulated to sound more sweetly to contemporary ears," Franks states.
The author also says that she writes her book "as a feminist who fears the
ideologically compromised feminism which Sanger bequeathed to America and,
due to the great power that population controllers have around the world, to
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2270, stipulates that human life
must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.
"From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as
having the rights of a person -- among which is the inviolable right of
every innocent being to life."
In No. 2274 the Catechism asks that the embryo be treated as a person, and
defended in its integrity. Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, the
Catechism adds, but only "if it respects the life and integrity of the
embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safe guarding or
healing as an individual." It adds: "[A] diagnosis must not be the
equivalent of a death sentence." It makes no exemptions for the sake of
producing perfect children.