Magazine article Conscience

'Reprogenetics': Hype, Phobia and Choice: An Unreserved Advocate of New Reproductive Technologies Argues His Case

Magazine article Conscience

'Reprogenetics': Hype, Phobia and Choice: An Unreserved Advocate of New Reproductive Technologies Argues His Case

Article excerpt

"POLICY DECISIONS WE TODAY are making--for instance, what do about human cloning or sex selection and genetic selection of embryos, or whether to get comfortable prescribing psychotropic drugs to 3-year-olds, or how vigorously to pursue research into the biology of senescence--will shape the world of the future for people who will not have chosen to live under its utopia-seeking possibilities." (1)

For some, this opinion from the President's Council on Bioethics is an exciting statement of future possibilities. For others, amongst whom we should include Leon Kass, the chair of the Council, it represents a frightening glimpse into the Brave New World that awaits us if we do not use the power of decision to rein in "the technological spirit." (2)

Against the background of scientific advance, public discussion and the work of the Council and other bodies, Erik Parens and Loft P. Knowles, in a recent supplement to the Hastings Center Report, "Reprogenetics and Public Policy: Reflections and Recommendations," call for a new oversight structure to regulate bioscience and biotechnology in America, because "the future of reprogenetic practice is too important to be decided solely by the market." (3) More explicitly perhaps than previous American commentators, they call for a form of regulation closely analogous to that practiced in the United Kingdom by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). This would allow consideration of both safety and "well-being" (in the UK, "welfare") issues.

I am skeptical--both of the arguments made and the solutions proposed by Parens and Knowles. In a reversal of traditional conservative themes, but with similar effect, the future rather than the past now weighs down on the present, casting humane technologies and parental motivations in a negative light. Writing from the UK, I am very much aware of the perceived shortcomings of the American regulatory structure. But before US policy makers take a ready-made solution off the UK's shelf, they should consider some of the limitations and restrictions it brings, as well as the difficulties it is running into presently.


For those of us who believe that embryos do not have rights or interests that could interfere with selection prior to birth, the currently available reproductive and genetic technologies represent a very positive development. They have allowed many infertile couples to have children who are related to them. They have allowed women at risk of having a child with a potentially dangerous genetic condition to achieve what others almost now take for granted--a child with every chance of a healthy and full life. They have given older women a higher chance of a successful and healthy pregnancy. More recently they have made it possible to have a child who will very likely be a tissue match for a seriously ill sibling, an event that is generally hailed as a wonderful thing when it occurs by chance following conception in the traditional manner.

However, this is not the reality, we are encouraged to picture. What I have presented as very reasonable steps taken by very reasonable people in difficult circumstances are, according to Parens and Knowles, products of a "market" in "reprogenetics." Worse, that market allows and encourages parents to "shape their children," turning them into commodities made to order.

Rather like Kass, Francis Fukuyama, the famous author and another member of the President's Council, has developed a style of argument and rhetoric that has similarities with but far surpasses that employed by more moderate voices such as Parens and Knowles. He tells us that the real threat "lies in the possibilities of human cloning, 'designer babies'--eugenic selection for intelligence, sex and personality--and eventually, the end of the human species as such." (4) Of course this road to hell is paved with good intentions--the good intentions of reasonable people pursuing apparently reasonable goals, such as visiting a Chicago clinic to undergo IVF and tissue-typing to help a sick child. …

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