As Wesley Smith has noted, today’s New York Times has a story about the development of a new technique for genetically testing fetuses at very early stages of pregnancy. Working with two fetuses, one at the 18-week stage, the other at the eight-week stage, scientists collected fetal DNA from the mothers’ blood (which is to say, this test was not in any way invasive for the fetuses). The researchers then used that DNA to sequence the fetuses’ genomes.
Older prenatal screening techniques were able to diagnose a handful of conditions, such as Down syndrome. It is estimated that 90 percent of all fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted — the result not just of modern diagnostic technology but also of the prevailing legal regime and cultural views about the worthiness of some human lives.
If this new breakthrough is perfected and made clinically available, parents will be able to test for a myriad of “Mendelian diseases,” the 3,000 or so diseases associated with particular genes. This could have beneficial effects that are ethically uncontroversial: Early diagnoses for some of these diseases might make it possible to offer treatments that will ameliorate their severity.
However, as this technology — along with our understanding of human genetics — advances, some parents may be tempted to use this genetic information to predict and select against a wide variety of traits, not just diseases. And it will certainly make it possible to know the sex of the unborn child far earlier than it has been under current techniques, which would facilitate sex-selective abortion.
It is worth noting, however, that even the new prospect of comprehensive prenatal genetic testing is not unprecedented. For 20 years now, couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) have been able to use a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) on their embryos to test for essentially any genetic conditions they choose to look for.
Parents and doctors have used PGD to select against embryos that have genes disposing them to a number of diseases, including cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs disease. They have also used PGD to select for the sex of the embryo. But while PGD is only available to patients conceiving through the arduous and expensive method of IVF, the kind of new genetic testing described in the Times offers that level of genetic control even to people who conceive without IVF.
Many in the pro-life community are already familiar with the targeting for abortion of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome. But PGD is proceeding with much less public scrutiny, perhaps because the technique involves only embryos before they have been implanted in the womb, not fetuses at a later stage of development. It can be difficult, even for ostensible pro-lifers, to accord the same respect to tiny embryos that they do to fetuses at later stages of development. Human embryos — human beings at their very earliest stage of development, a stage that each of us once went through — lack the visible characteristics that arouse our moral and sympathetic sentiments. (Jon A. Shields recently made this point quite well in the Public Discourse.)
But the advent of genetic screening for fetuses could lead to the same sort of wide-scale selective discarding — through abortion — of unborn human life deemed genetically inferior that has been available to IVF patients using PGD for two decades. Techniques like the new one just being reported on will extend and heighten our ability to exert genetic control over new generations of human life — raising the troubling specter of a new eugenics.
— Brendan Foht is assistant editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.