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Brave New Britain


This BBC article celebrates the birth in Britain of the first baby tested in vitro for an altered form of the BRCA1 gene known to vastly increase the risk of breast cancer. The girl—whose family has been very hard hit by the disease in prior generations—was conceived by IVF and tested when she was still an embryo, before being implanted in her mother’s womb. She was very fortunate not to carry the altered form of the gene, because if she had been found to carry it, she would have been killed. Somehow, though, the BBC doesn’t quite put it that way. Instead we are treated to an impressive display of doublespeak and obfuscation. The doctor who treated the girl’s parents is quoted saying:

This little girl will not face the spectre of developing this genetic form of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in her adult life. The parents will have been spared the risk of inflicting this disease on their daughter. The lasting legacy is the eradication of the transmission of this form of cancer that has blighted these families for generations.

Better to eradicate the carriers, it seems, than to risk a potentially curable if very serious adult-onset illness. So should cancer patients wish they had never been born? Should the rest of us wish they hadn’t been? The BBC itself then does the doctor one better, writing:

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) involves taking a cell from an embryo at the eight-cell stage of development, when it is around three-days old, and testing it. This is before conception – defined as when the embryo is implanted in the womb.

By whom, exactly, is “conception” defined as “when the embryo is implanted in the womb”? I suppose if you can’t deny that life begins at conception you just insist that conception means whatever you want it to mean. So why not call it “pre-conception genetic diagnosis”?

Curing the disease by killing the patient is hardly a step forward for medicine, and eliminating the unfit before they’re born so they won’t pass on their genes to future generations is just eugenics, pure and simple. That little girl is very lucky to be alive.

(More thoughts on contemporary eugenics here, if you’ll pardon the plug).


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