As prenatal DNA tests become better and more widely available many worry that their benefits are outweighed by their dangers. A lengthy article in the Washington Post takes up this discussion in some depth. It seems that while new and better testing at the level of DNA is a great tool to help women carrying pregnancies in risky circumstances (advanced maternal age, previous history of genetically abnormal pregnancies or births, unclear ultrasound results, etc.) some ethicists still fear the tests could be misused. Says the Post:
“Some worry that the technique could be used to hunt for the rapidly growing list of genetic markers that merely signal an increased risk for cancer, diabetes, mental illness, obesity, addiction and other conditions later in life. Someday, similar tests could perhaps even vet fetuses for traits associated with beauty, personality or intelligence.”
And in a broader look at concerns I expressed here recently, disabled rights groups worry that insurance companies may start refusing to cover treatment for conditions discovered through this testing, pressuring women to terminate pregnancies they might otherwise desire to continue:
“We want disabled children to be welcomed into the world. My fear is we’re moving in the opposite direction,” said Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People With Disabilities. “If we decide to use prenatal testing to eliminate gene-based disabilities, that’s what the Nazis were trying to do, in their own crude way. I think we’re saying that certain types of lives aren’t worth living.”
The old anxiety about “designer” babies comes up again in the article. I am of two minds about it. On the one hand, I think this fear is overblown–most parents will probably not be interested in screening for eye color or other meaningless traits. But on the other hand, the grey area the article mentions–genetic markers for a “tendency” to traits like obesity, certain cancers or other health problems or socially undesirable features may make it to the routine list someday. And at this point the technology is a dull enough instrument that many gene “markers” leave much unknown about what exactly their effects are in a real, live person. As a lesbian, I personally worry about parents terminating fetuses with genetic markers for same-sex orientation–that holy grail so many gay rights acitvists hope for but that I hope fervantly against.
As with any tool, it is imperitive that people be properly educated and trained to use it. The answer is not to refuse such new technologies, but to step up the education people receive about how to understand what it tells us.
More bioethics from this writer: