Monday, March 02, 2009

Now For Something Completely Disturbing

This is one of the single most worrisome developments in human history. Honestly. People choosing the traits of their children pre-birth is a horrifying proposition. I think it's disturbing to do genetic selection for health reasons (if you disagree, tell me how a person with a genetic disease is any less of a person than one without/describe how that life is not worth living), so it's extremely disturbing to see genetic selection on the basis of nothing more than cosmetic reasons.

So very very scary.

Here's another article on the same issue, from a UK perspective.

And if you ask for a nickel,
I'm gonna hand you a dime


Andrew said...

How long until we see attempts to build a "master race?"

Also, no mention of the embryos that are not selected. If the embryos with the desirable traits are implanted, presumably the rest are destroyed. Thus, it is targeted killing of humans with "undesired" physical traits. Whether those traits are handicaps such as blindness, or other traits such as not being tall enough or having the "wrong" eye color, it is appalling! How is this not genocide--the planned, mass killing of pre-born humans based on their genes?

Jacob said...

I find the long-term impacts of gender selection somewhat worrying, but I'm not disturbed by this. It might even be one of the few ways to preserve recessive genetic traits like naturally red hair.

I agree that this is something worth discussing and that there are potentially bad outcomes. But horrifying? I'm not so sure. I actually think it could be kind of neat.

Zhubin said...

I'm with Jacob. I agree we're wading into treacherous ethical waters, but I don't see anything wrong with using this technology to prevent genetic diseases.

Alan said...

dunno about you guys but it would have been awesome to have a longer femur

Jacob said...

Or maybe even two longer femurs!

Ben said...

I guess I'm splitting the difference here. I find incomprehensible Matt's claim that treatment of genetic-based diseases is the equivalent of saying someone is less of a person. How is it any different from surgery? Does giving someone a triple bypass or a prosthetic leg imply that they were less of a person without a functioning heart or a leg? I really don't see the connection.

But, it is a slippery slope. When we start messing with genetics for the sake of, say, preserving red hair....of ready-making our kids off the assembly's moved beyond treatment of a specific malady. It feels like it's undermining what it is to be human. Okay, I'm not exactly sure what I mean by that......But suffice to say that use of techniques that operate at such a fundamental level has potential for enormous abuse. And, humanity being what it is, it will be abused.

Andrew said...

This is not the treatment of genetic diseases. This is identifying humans who have genetic diseases or "undesirable" traits and killing them and only allowing those without diseases or who have the "right" traits to live.

From the article:
"PGD is a technique whereby a three-day-old embryo, consisting of about six cells, is tested in a lab to see if it carries a particular genetic disease. Embryos free of that disease are implanted in the mother's womb."

PGD doesn't treat or cure anyone. It isn't a life-saving surgery. PGD identifies those who are disease free (or who have "blond hair, green eyes, and pale skin") and implants them into a woman's womb. What that also means is that those embryos who have the disease or undesirable trait are killed.

This is treatment like it was treatment for the Spartans to discard babies that didn't seem strong enough or had defects. This is treatment like it would be treatment to euthanize a mentally retarded child. This is nothing less than the cold and calculated killing of people who are deemed undesirable in some way.

Is this a slippery slope? Absolutely. It is a slippery slope like forcefully euthanizing the elderly would be a slippery slope. Once you start devaluing and killing human life, it becomes easier to excuse more killing.

PGD is the preservation of the healthy (or pretty or athletic or otherwise desired) and the killing of the diseased, weak, or undesired. It is horrifying because it looks at a young human being and says, "You have the wrong eye color; you must die." What could be more cold?

Zhubin said...

Except that we're talking about three-day-old embryos, not human beings.

I think we're also ignoring the potential benefits of super-soldiers. No way America loses our next elective invasion!

patric said...

i believe i speak for us all when i say, "god schmod! i want my monkey-man!"

Quinn said...

I dunno Zhubin, it seems as though you're about to take us into a discussion/debate/argument from late last year on this blog: when does human life begin?

I'm kind of tired of beating this horse to death, so if the discussion does go that route, I'll politely watch from the margins. It's my opinion that human life begins at conception, so embryos are human life.

This whole PGD thing is creepy; it's unnerving that people are considering this as a possibility, considering the slippery slope already mentioned.

Matthew B. Novak said...

My family is in town, so I don't have time for a more full comment right now, but I will say two quick things.

First, Zhubin, even if it's not a human life it is a life, and you are making a determination about which life is more or less worthy on the basis of arbitrary characteristics. Whether a being has green, blue or brown eyes is not the kind of criteria that should play into whether or not that life is worth living - human or not. Nor is whether or not a being has a genetic disease/defect. I reject that a being's worth turns any sort of physical characteristic.
Ben - Andrew's point about this not being treatment is quite relevant. It's selection of which beings live and die on the basis of these characteristic. Giving someone a bypass or prosthetic is treating a person. Part of what goes into the whole thinking behind this approach is that we'd rather not even have the person than treat them.

Secondly, a rather standard bioethics exercise is to keep pushing the line between genetic defect and undesirable characteristics. Basically, there's just a big spectrum. There's not a very clear line between genetic defect and undesirable characteristic. In fact, if you consider something like "genetic predisposition to being overweight" you can see how easily the line is blurred.

Nate said...

blue eyes are overrated.

Zhubin said...

Yeah, I was wondering how Ben squared his comment with his very pro-life position.

The line on the spectrum might be difficult, but you might as well give some thought to where to place it, because good luck getting any outright ban on it. No parent is going to accept the chance that their child will have down syndrome when they can be guaranteed that he/she won't.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

I'm not quite sure what you're saying here... are you suggesting no one would let their child with down syndrome live if they knew pre-birth that it would have down syndrome? Or are you suggesting that, given a choice between down syndrome and not down syndrome everyone would choose the later? Or something else all together?

Because I think the first is clearly wrong (see, for example, the existence of non-aborted individuals with down syndrome). The second gives me two thoughts. First, it's only true in a vacuum - yes, eveyone would chose "not down syndrome" but we aren't just picking features for an individual, we're creating a series of individuals and then choosing just one of them to birth, and destroying the rest. I think there are plenty of people who would, given that fact, rather accept the child with down syndrome than see it destroyed. Second, we shouldn't even be letting people make this choice. That's partially what's so horrifying about this whole process. People should not be choosing the features of their children. Whether that's eye color or predisposition for weight or genetic disease, or whatever. Whether a child will be welcomed into the world shouldn't turn on a characteristic of the child. Giving parents the choice to welcome or reject a child on the basis of these characteristics is exactly what happens when we allow this kind of screening. That is, in itself, disturbing.

Jacob said...

Matt -- We obviously disagree about the moral value of embryos, but let's leave that aside for now. I'm curious how you'd feel about choosing traits using methods other than PGD, methods that wouldn't involve destroying embryos. For example, directly replacing a baby's existing genes for eye color with new genes of the parents' choosing (this is not totally infeasible). Would this bother you as much?

Zhubin said...

Matt, I'm just saying that if a doctor says to a couple that there is a good chance that a child they conceive naturally will have down syndrome, but that they can create a few embryos and test them first and doing so will guarantee the child will not have down syndrome, then you will be lucky to find .005 percent of parents worldwide who would take the first option. I'm not saying anything about the morality of it, I'm just saying that once that technology becomes feasible, it will certainly become legal and commonplace.

I'm interested in your answer to Jacob's question. I'll also add that, although I don't have much knowledge of the issue, I wonder about elective genetic selection resulting in the same loss of human genetic diversity that weakens modern crops.

dyk said...

Didn't any of these people see Gattaca?

Holy crap, that came out in 1997.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

I think you are seriously, seriously off in your estimate. Less than .005% you say? Let's take a parallel: right now they have pre-natal tests for down syndrome (not quite the same situation, but close), that don't cost a lot, are super easy to do, etc. I've been told by someone who is an OB/GYN that even though she recommends this test to patients, roughly 25% pass up even having the test done. And I think that, given the situation you pose, an even greater number of people - at least near 50% - would not want to create and destroy a bunch of embryos. I don't think an outright ban on this type of embryo selection is unreasonable, and I think that for moral reasons it should be pushed for.

Jacob & Zhubin -

I'd been thinking about this gene-replacement bit for a while too. Here's where I'd draw the line: it is acceptable to replace genes only when doing so is for the purpose of eliminating a genetic disease. By genetic disease I mean a condition that has as its sole cause a genetic origin. CF would be a prime example. Any predisposition or tendency created by genetics (like predisposition to being overweight) shouldn't be addressed through gene replacement. And any non-harmful genetic trait should be strictly hands off. Only genetic diseases.

I know that's a pretty harsh line, but it makes sense to me, in that a genetic disease can ONLY be cured on the genetic level. If you have something that is only a tendency there are other ways to address the problem. And there's simply no reason for us to prefer any other physical characteristic. I'm bothered nearly as much by the arbitrary preference for some characteristics as I am by the destruction of embryos. Heck, I'm even perturbed by the selection of non-arbitrary preferences (presumably everyone would try to have their child's genes altered in favor of high intelligence).

I mean, this brings up all sorts of troubling questions. First, does the smarter person have more inherent worth? Heck no. People all have the same moral value. Second, will the smarter person be more happy or successful or give more to society? We have no way of knowing. Third, who's to say the parents will judiciously pick traits for their children? People are notoriously bad at knowing what will make them happy, and this is even more true for our estimations for other people. Fourth, if we're just going to start manipulating the children we have, won't everyone manipulate in the same direction? Won't this have a significantly destructive effect on our individuality? Would this result in weakened genetic diversity? Wouldn't the government have to step in to ensure that we've got enough diversity and tell people which manipulations they must and must not choose? Won't this just turn into Gattica? What about people who want to change skin color? Doesn't this bring up big race issues? Won't we see the same type of discrimination against people with minority physical traits (like green eyes) that we've seen in the past? I mean, skin color didn't used to be a choice, but now it is... What about things like homosexuality which seem to be, at least in part, genetic? Should we eliminate homosexuality or other tendencies that some people deem unwanted?

That's jsut a series of really big problems off the top of my head. I take the point about this all being kind of neat in the abstract, but let's be realistic about what people would turn this into: about how the government would certainly get involved, about how the rich would use this as a tool against the poor, about how minorities and this disabled would be treated, about the ways this could destroy people's lives, and how this undercuts the sense of individuality and possibility that each of us really embraces.

Rachel said...

Center for Genetics and Society reports that the fertility clinic is suspending the eye and hair color program for now.

Brittany said...

Eugenics is making a comeback... 9 out of 10 Downs babies don't make it.. and maybe someday 9 out of 10 far sighted red heads. Gives me the heeby jeebies.