Prenatal Genetic Screening – a parental obligation?

Recently a genetics professor suggested publicly that creating designer babies by using prenatal genetic screening should be considered a “moral obligation” for parents.

The basis for the screening Professor Savulescu recommends is the identification of gene markers which are believed to be related to behavior and personality. His suggestion grows out of the first successful sequencing of the complete prenatal genome. The professor points to personality flaws such as alcoholism, psychopathy and a predisposition to violence as traits a parent should deselect in order to produce ethically superior children. Genetics studies have uncovered gene markers for some of these traits, and will almost certainly discover more in the near future. The professor advocates that parents take responsibility for the selecting children that will improve the human race. A summary of his article can be found in The Telegraph Online His full article will be found in the September, 2012 issue of Reader’s Digest.

In response to ethical complaints about the process of “engineering” babies, the professor points out that parents already are advised to test for genetic indicators of conditions such as Down’s syndrome and cystic fibrosis. Some parents already use the results of such tests to inform a decision to continue or to terminate a pregnancy. In the eyes of the Professor Savulescu, after screening for severely adverse medical conditions, the natural next step is to use the genetic information to screen out undesirable behaviors. The professor calls this process “rational design,” and he believes this process is both ethical and desirable.

Important questions arise with regard to the process of designing babies:

  1. Is there actually a parental obligation to use genome sequencing to screen out personality or medical defects and terminate pregnancies if defects are identified?
  2. If the answer to question 1 is ‘yes’ then does the process of prenatal genome sequencing actually deliver to parents today the kind of information they need in order to screen out these defects?
  3. How is this process different from the “eugenics” movement initiated by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930’s? The professor says it is different because, instead of the state defining the selection criteria, parents do it for themselves. Is there any real ethical difference if the result is to kill those who are determined to be defective?
  4. Genome sequencing can only happen if an egg has been fertilized. Biologically speaking viable eggs and viable sperm are living things. Is it even possible to construct a definition of ‘alive’ that would exclude a fertilized egg or an 8-cell embryo?
  5. Such testing could certainly be used simply to help parents prepare for what may be a considerable care burden if a child has severe medical issues. Most Christians have some level of comfort with that usage of genetic information. However, in order to believe that genetic screening is both ethical and desirable, one must allow that it is ethical to kill a living human being who has not yet been born. Christians do not universally agree even on the question of family planning by natural means. What criteria will Christians use to decide whether to participate in family planning that includes the destruction of a living human being?

There are clearly more questions than answers. Secular thinking does not include Christian concepts of the sovereignty of God or the sacredness of human life. Secular thinking often revolves around efforts to perfect human beings or society at large, and very often, the efforts involve some heavy-handed action by a special person who alone knows how to reach the perfection everyone yearns for. It may be that the push for perfection of humankind within the boundaries of time and space is the most crucial difference between Christians and secular thinkers. Christians accept the fact that human beings are intractably imperfect. In fact, Christians accept the fact that Christ’s death was the only means of washing away all the imperfections, the sins, of human beings and that even baptized believers must continue to drown their sins daily. Secular thinkers believe human beings will find a way to improve the race and embark on a path to perfection in this life, the only life secular thinkers acknowledge. Christians reject any notion that the human race can ever be perfected. The only hope Christians see is the forgiveness of sin purchased at the price of Christ’s death on the cross.

The questions and attempted answers surrounding prenatal genetic screening cannot be swept under a rug. The fact that the answers are complicated will not prevent people from crafting what they believe to be answers on which they will act. Christians are part of the culture, and Christians will necessarily be part of the conversation. Christians may ask if God has allowed humans at this time in history to learn this new skill in order to draw closer to him in the ongoing process of creation. How will Christians find their way through the moral minefield set up by the capabilities for prenatal genetic selection?