TCS Daily

Courage in a Brave New World

By Nick Schulz - March 8, 2002 12:00 AM

We're back to a more traditional Fodder format today, with more links than a Rikers Island prison fence - and, we hope, just as much social utility.

Biotech Brouhahas -- So much happens so quickly in the world of biotechnology that's it's difficult to make heads or tails of it all - especially the ethical concerns. My hunch is that contrary to the unbridled optimism of some libertarians (see "Hooray for Designer Babies!") or the undue pessimism of some conservatives and neoconservatives (see "Defining Life Down"), the recent past and near future of biotech is most likely to amount to being a mixed bag.

For example, lots of people were thrilled with the recent news that a test-tube baby was developed from an embryo that had been successfully screened to ensure it did not have its mother's Alzheimer's gene. After all, who (among IVF proponents, anyway) could be against precluding a child from being born with a disease? Well, people who fear a slippery slope, that's who. The thinking goes, if we can screen for diseases like Alzheimer's today, we will screen for non-disease characteristics like eye color or sex tomorrow.

Pink or Blue? -- Well, maybe not even tomorrow -- how about today? Some babies are already being born to parents who choose, in advance, what sex they want their child to be.

Now, this fact troubles some folks. After all, as Ronald Bailey of Reason writes, "Sex selection is controversial because it is the first example of genetic selection for a non-disease trait. Being a boy or girl is not a disease." True that. Moreover, "few aspects of human development are more significant than one's sex; it's a central fact of one's identity as a human being. If it is ethically permissible for parents to make that choice, the case for letting them make less significant genetic choices for their offspring is already made."

There's the rub. The prospect that parents may one day go down a laundry list of "less significant genetic choices" and, cafeteria-style, choose what they want, is morally problematic for some. This puts us, some suggest, "on the precipice of a time in which we will not unconditionally love our babies." Some people worry further that screening technologies will bring with them social and economic pressures to use them. "It will soon become common sense that sex is for fun, but having a baby is a serious matter, not to be left to chance," says one critic.

Testing Test Tubes -- There are good arguments to be had on both sides, but the proponents of such genetic choices were dealt a practical blow this week when a new study announced: "Test-Tube Babies Face Higher Health Risks."

Children conceived through assisted reproductive technologies "face about double the risk for birth defects and low birth weight," a report in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) found. The findings are significant since assisted reproductive technologies are increasingly popular and because they "contradict some previous studies showing little or no hazard to assisted reproductive technology other than the well-recognized chance of having twins or triplets."

Morally Obtuse -- Let's put this finding in some perspective. Women for decades have been told that there was little to no risk to having test-tube babies. Now it appears they have been misled. There's no way to spin away from the fact that this revelation is a slight blow to the credibility of reproductive technology enthusiasts. Well, at least I thought there was no way to spin away from that fact.

William R. Keye is a physician at William Beaumont Hospital. He is also the president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. According to the Washington Post, "[Keye] noted that while there may be risks to infertility procedures, there are also risks to their alternatives, including the chance of unrecognized developmental problems in adopted infants."

To which one can only say: So what? This kind of equivalence is precisely what gives people justifiable reservations about biotech and reproductive technologies. Attempts to spin the implications of this finding by saying that there are possible "unrecognized developmental problems" for adopted babies, too, are morally obtuse.

Why? For starters, babies that are up for adoption are already born - the decision about whether or not to bring them into the world has already been made. The NEJM finding offers important information for those weighing reproductive options before efforts to bring a life into the world have begun. With an adoption, all we have to do is weigh the "chance of unrecognized developmental problems" against the alternative: Both the recognized and "unrecognized developmental problems" in foster care or in abusive home environments or any other pre-adoptive situation. We are not weighing the more fundamental question of whether or not to bring a life into the world at all. This is an important moral and categorical distinction.

Some critics of biotechnology too frequently fail to account for the moral implications of retarding biotechnological developments through regulation or banning certain kinds of research. But in their defense, they are given ample cause for concern when some of those at the forefront of the revolution in biotech are unwilling, unable, or unprepared to recognize setbacks for what they are, or to make what should be obvious moral judgments and clarifications.

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