July 28th, 2006

Gattaca at our Doorstep


Gattaca, an excellent science-fiction movie, may soon be categorized as science-fact.

Elizabeth Schiltz describes a procedure called PGH (preimplantation genetic haplotyping) in Business Week:

The DNA is extracted from the individual cell, replicated to create a big enough sample to work with, and then analyzed for chromosomal abnormalities. About 200 different genetic conditions can be identified through this procedure, including Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, sickle cell anemia, and Down syndrome. If an unwanted condition is identified, the tested embryo is not implanted. If no condition is identified, the embryo can be implanted in the mother’s womb and will grow into a healthy baby. PGH exponentially increases the number of conditions that can be identified in an embryo before implantation.

This incredible technology has been heralded as a significant advance in our ability to offer couples who know they are carriers of certain genetic conditions “their first realistic chance of having healthy children.” It has also been described as an improvement over cruder techniques for preventing the birth of children with inherited conditions. Instead of screening for certain x-chromosome-linked conditions by destroying all male embryos, doctors can screen male embryos to determine which ones actually have the particular condition.

While the level of control offered to parents in Gattaca (the ability to manipulate height, hair color, muscular build, etc.) isn’t currently possible, PGH allows the would-be parent to screen would-be children, in an effort to curtail the potential of giving birth to a child with a handicap or medical abnormality.

This, like abortion, is selfish. Schiltz agrees:

Scientists are beginning to tell me precisely how much dissident acts like not aborting my son cost society. A study published in 2000 in the American Journal of Medical Genetics concluded that the average lifetime cost of each “new case” of Down syndrome is $451,000. This study differentiated the lifetime costs of various types of prenatally diagnosed disabilities leading to abortions in one hospital in Michigan. For reasons I can’t fathom, Down syndrome turns out to be the most expensive by far. In contrast, the lifetime costs of conditions like spina bifida ($294,000) and cleft lip or palate ($101,000) seem almost negligible.

So, one should abort would-be children to save money? This greedy act is one typical of abortion: the mother doesn’t want the child, because he or she would be an imposition on her time and wallet. While certainly more understandable when “proof” is offered of future medical abnormalities, abortion in this case is still wrong. Who is to say that the life of that child will be a “burden on society”? Indeed, people with such “disabilities” are often an inspiration to others.

I would not want scientists to stop delving into the mysteries and wonders of the human genome. I am glad that I knew my son had Down syndrome before he was born. If one of these scientists found a “cure” for my son’s Down syndrome, I almost certainly would give it to him. But I will admit that I would pause beforehand. I would think hard about this real-life conversation between a teenager with Down syndrome and her mother. The daughter asked her mother whether she would still have Down syndrome when the two were together in heaven someday. The mother, taken by surprise, responded that she thought probably not. To which her daughter responded, “But how will you know who I am, then?” And I would also think hard about whether the world would really be a better place without my son’s soft, gentle, deep, almond-shaped eyes.

I hope that Ms. Schiltz’s strong moral convictions will serve as an example to other parents who face such a decision in light of advancing medical breakthroughs. Let’s not play “God”; let’s allow Him to do what he knows is best.

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