Thursday, August 02, 2012

What would have happened to Beethoven?

American bioethicist Wesley J. Smith, for whom I once had the privilege of hosting meetings in Manchester, points out that a maternal blood test now being perfected will enable technologists to map the entire genome of the developing foetus. Which means parents will have plenty of notice of undeveloped flaws in the unborn child to enable them to arrange abortion.

He writes on his blog:

Unlike amniocentesis, which requires the insertion of a needle into the womb to obtain amniotic fluid, the test would come earlier in the pregnancy and put the fetus at no risk - unless that is, it reveals unwanted genetic conditions or propensities. In such cases, the fetus's very life would suddenly be at material and immediate risk.

In a culture in which all people are valued equally regardless of their health or capacities, fetal genetic testing would be a splendid way to reveal the need for prenatal treatments or to allow parents time to prepare for a child with special needs. That's precisely how Todd and Sarah Palin reacted when they learned their youngest child Trig has Down syndrome. Long before he was born, they absorbed the emotional shock and then joyfully welcomed their son with open arms. But such unconditional love cuts against the current cultural zeitgeist. Consider: About 90 per cent of fetuses testing for genetic conditions such as Down and dwarfism are terminated to the moral support, if not outright cheering, of much of society. It may seem harsh to say, but it is true nonetheless: We are in the midst of a great eugenic cleansing in which diagnosed imperfection often favors abortion.

Can anyone deny it?. . . Increasingly people not only believe they have a right to a baby but to the baby they want.

But our quest for perfection, had the technology come a few hundred years earlier, could have come at a terrible cost. . . 

Beethoven might never have been born, considering his destined deafness. If Lincoln was bi-polar or had the genetic condition known as Marfan's syndrome, as some have speculated, he might well have been "selected out" in the hope that Tom and Nancy Lincoln's next baby would have a less troubled nature. For that matter, the embryonic Winston Churchill might have been terminated when his genetic screeners warned his parents that he would have a predisposition for alcoholism. Similarly, Mother Teresa might have never been born had her parents known she would be diminutive and plain. Ditto Toulouse-Lautrec. . .  

If I were to pick one human attribute to extol above all others, it wouldn't be high intelligence, good looks or athletic prowess - the usual targets for human improvement. Rather, I believe the most crucial human attribute is our capacity to love.

Nearly 2000 years ago, St Paul wrote, "And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love." Who among us exhibit a greater unconditional love capacity than our brothers and sisters with Down syndrome? To the extent that they and other "defectives" are unwelcome among us can be measured our own deficiency as a society.

Technology isn't the problem. We are.