The British (genetic) Revolution?

436px-leonardo_da_vinci_studies_of_embryosThe fate of embryos and treatments to screen them for disease made news in England last week -- but few apparent ripples over here. Yes, this is an ongoing practice over here in limited cases -- so it's not neccesarily breaking news. But what starts on the frontiers of science often moves closer to the mainstream -- bringing a host of moral and religious questions not always addressed in the controversy.

Here's an example.

Last week the Mail Online (and other U.K. papers) carried articles about the first English woman to give birth to a child designed to be free of the BRCA1 gene that greatly increases risk for both breast and ovarian cancer.

The first British baby designed to be free of breast cancer has been born into an ethical storm. She will grow up without a gene which has blighted three generations of her father's family.

The breakthrough gives hope to other couples who fear to have children because they are in increased danger of killer diseases. But it will reinforce fears of future parents producing 'designer babies', choosing the colour of their eyes and hair, and selecting children who will grow up to be top of the class and excel in sport.

"An ethical storm" is a good way of putting it. But producing and destroying embryos is also an act that has religious implications regarding the sacredness of life -- and this is only addressed indirectly, with a quote from the trusty Ann Widdecombe.

Tory MP Ann Widdecombe said: 'A lot of embryos have genes in them that could lead to nothing but them turning into perfectly healthy humans. Once again this shows a worrying precedent that man wants to play God.'

An article in The Scotsman had a quote that, while not specifically theological, nicely encapsulated the dilemma such choices pose for believers:

Michaela Aston, from the Life charity, added: "Life celebrates all new life and welcomes this child into the world.

"However, we are greatly concerned for the loss of those embryos discarded as not being considered worthy of life.

"The big question is: Where is this going to stop?

We need to remember that we are more than the sum of our genes."

The Mail Online story, quite detailed in other regards, goes on to say that the couple were treated to "screen out embryos" carrying the BRCA1 gene. And it has a few paragraphs that may be of interest to American audiences:

Stuart Lavery, joint head of the IVF unit at Hammersmith Hospital in West London and spokesman for the British Fertility Society, said doctors in the U.S. had for some years been selecting out embryos carrying the BRCA1 gene.

'It will become more routine but not necessarily more widespread-because it will be most heavily used by a small group.

'PGD will not open the floodgates to general embryo screening. It does not involve genetic engineering - this is not a designer baby.'

Ah, language, language...

As William Saletan points out in a piercing and timely commentary posted on the Slate website, it's all too easy to gloss over the reality that doctors and patients pick, choose and dissect embryos -- as was done in the case of this British baby.

In sum, at least six human embryos were made and then thrown away because they failed a test. We now call such tests "preconception." This is the next step in our gradual devaluation of embryos. First, we said IVF embryos weren't pregnancies. That's technically correct: Pregnancy begins when the embryo implants in the womb. Then we called early embryos "pre-embryos" so we could dismantle them to get stem cells. That was technically incorrect, but we did it because it made us feel better. Now we're adjusting the word conception. Henceforth, testing of IVF embryos to decide which will live or die is preconception. Don't fret about the six eggs we fertilized, rejected, and flushed in selecting this baby. They were never really conceived. In fact, they weren't embryos. According to Serhal, each was just "an affected cluster of cells."

Read the rest of "Eugenic Euphemisms." Agree or disagree, it's powerful stuff.

My question is: why aren't we reading more about this development in the American media?

You can safely bet that research on embryos will once again be headline news in the US soon. Let's hope that writers dig deep into the moral and theological questions that accompany this topic, as well as focusing on the often heartrending and authentic problems faced by individuals, couples and families.

Picture of Leonardo Da Vinci's drawing is from Wikimedia Commons

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