Designer babies, gender, science and a ghost

embryo2A long, long, time ago, during a press conference with Rep. Patricia Schroeder of (D-Colo.), I asked a question that I thought was perfectly logical. At the time, she was one of the most outspoken voices in the U.S. Congress on every imaginable progressive cause, especially abortion rights and other issues linked to the lifestyle left. Someone raised the topic of gay rights and I asked a follow-up. If I understood correctly, I said, Schroeder's stance on the issue was rooted in her conviction that homosexuals were born gay and that this would, eventually, be proven by science. The congresswoman said this was correct. So if a "gay gene" was discovered, and parents could detect this with prenatal tests of some kind, would she oppose the abortion of homosexual fetuses?

Based on the glares from Schroeder and her aide, this question was considered somewhat off the wall in the mid-1980s.

However, I knew that gay ethicists, theologians and even artists were already asking that question, and they have asked it many times in the years since then. It is also one of the questions hidden between the lines of the recent Washington Post news feature by Rob Stein titled "A Boy for You, a Girl for Me: Technology Allows Choice." The sub-headline added, "Embryo Screening Stirs Ethics Debate." I still think there was a ghost in this story.

Along with the heartwarming cases of parents happy with their pro-choice options, the story did quote a number of experts offering alternative viewpoints, such as:

. . . (Others) say the practice, which is prohibited in many countries, uses expensive medical care for frivolous purposes, destroys some embryos just because they are the "wrong" sex, and promotes gender discrimination. Moreover, the critics say, the trend is a dangerous first step toward transforming childbirth from a natural process full of surprise and wonder into just another commodity in which a baby's features are picked like options on a new car.

"It runs the risk of turning procreation and parenting into an extension of the consumer society," said Michael J. Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard University. "Sex selection is one step down the road to designer children, in which parents would choose not only the sex of their child but also conceivably the height, hair color, eye color, and ultimately, perhaps, IQ, athletic prowess and musical ability. It's troubling."

The article also moves past the designer-baby issue and asks the kinds of ultimate questions one would tend to hear raised in, well, places such as the Vatican and the headquarters of Focus on the Family. What happens -- in a largely sexist world -- when something does go wrong and parents do not get what they want? Is gender a sin? After all, critics note that these techniques

. . . (Allow) parents to discriminate on the basis of sex, and they point to countries such as India and China, where a preference for boys has led to abortion of female fetuses and abandonment of baby girls, creating a shortage of women. . . .

Because MicroSort is not 100 percent reliable, critics fear it may lead to the selective abortion of fetuses, particularly females.

I really don't mean to whine, but I do think that reporters need to realize that, for the vast majority of their readers, these kinds of stories -- which will only increase time and time again in the years ahead -- have a religious dimension.

Ethical questions are good. Moral questions are good. But when people start debating ultimate topics of life and death and right and wrong, content directly related to faith and the beliefs of religious people of all stripes should be included.

The ghosts are not hard to find. In fact, it is hard to avoid them.

Please respect our Commenting Policy