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Genetic Selection and Abortion Taking a Higher Toll

By Father John Flynn

NEW YORK, DEC. 13, 2006 (Zenit) - Some parents are selecting embryos in order to have children with genetic defects. In a bizarre reversal of the normal situation, where less-than-perfect embryos are rejected, a small number of people look for children who suffer the same problems they have, the New York Times reported Dec. 5.

The article cited a forthcoming study, from the journal Fertility and Sterility. A survey of fertility clinics in the United States found that 3% of couples use pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) "to select an embryo for the presence of a disability."

With PGD the embryos are conceived in a laboratory and a single cell is taken for analysis. The embryos that pass the test are then implanted, the "defective" ones are left to die, and further healthy ones are sometimes frozen.

On Sept. 20 the Associated Press explained that the technique can be used for a variety of purposes. A survey of American clinics, also published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, found that almost half allow the use of PGD to let parents select the sex of their children. And 23% of the fertility centers would permit couples to help have a child whose umbilical cord blood could be used to treat a sibling with a serious illness.

On Sept. 3 the New York Times published a lengthy article describing how PGD is used to eliminate embryos that have defective genes that might, at some unknown time in the future, lead to cancer. It is also used to eliminate embryos that carry genes leading to illnesses such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia and Huntington's disease.

The article noted the high financial costs involved. Depending on how successful the in vitro fertilization procedures are, conceiving a genetically screened baby could cost a couple upward of $25,000. Moreover, there is concern over the long-term health effects of removing a cell from an embryo for analysis at such an early stage of development.

Human status

Earlier this year the Pontifical Academy for Life examined the morality of PGD. The 12th general assembly of the Vatican body, held in February, was dedicated to considering the human embryo in the pre-implantation phase.

The final declaration of the pontifical academy concluded that the human embryo before implantation is:

-- already a being of the human species;

-- an individual being;

-- a being that possesses in itself the finality to develop as a human person together with the intrinsic capacity to achieve such development.

The academy observed that a decision as to whether an embryo at this stage is already a "person" is open to further philosophical considerations. Nevertheless, the declaration stated: "We maintain that there is no significant reason to deny that the embryo is already a person in this phase."

From a moral point of view, "the mere fact of being in the presence of a human being (and even the doubt of this would suffice) would demand full respect for the embryo's integrity and dignity," the statement continued. "[A]ny conduct that might in some way constitute a threat or an offense to its most fundamental rights, and first and foremost the right to life, must be considered as seriously immoral."

Playing God

But what the Church sees as immoral is hailed by others as a virtue. In England, Sunday Times commentator Minette Marrin declared herself to be "dazzled by the inventiveness and compassion" behind a new PGD technique that will make it easier to detect genetic defects in embryos.

"It will be easier and better in every way to get rid of a tiny collection of cells," Marrin exulted in an article June 25. And to those who expressed concerns over the use of PGD Marrin replied: "But what on earth is wrong with humans playing God?"

The extension of PGD seems limitless. William Saletan, writing in the Washington Post on Sept. 17, explained how PGD in its first days was used to detect fatal childhood diseases. But now a significant number of clinics allow it to be used to detect genetic problems that will not cause any diseases until well into middle age. Moreover, the risk of developing some of these illnesses is less than 50%. He noted a case where a patient wanted to screen for an arthritis gene that only has a 20% chance of causing problems.

Saleton declared himself in favor of using PGD to eliminate serious illnesses. But even he admitted that its use could lead down a slippery slope.

In fact, earlier this year the British body in charge of regulating fertility clinics, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, relaxed its rules on PGD use. Couples will now be allowed to screen embryos for genes such as those that can lead to a number of types of cancer, the BBC reported May 10.

The decision came under strong criticism from some groups. Clara Mackay, of Breast Cancer Care, told the BBC that the incidence of breast cancer cases linked to known genes accounted for just five in 100 cases. "This means that if an embryo is implanted without the affected gene, the child can still develop the disease and would carry the same lifetime risk as anyone in the general population," she stated.

Aborting the "unfit"

Killing off babies with defects does not stop at the PGD phase. Mothers are often pressured to abort children with problems. The British newspaper Telegraph recounted one case in an article May 21. Lisa Green was urged by her doctor to abort when her baby was diagnosed with Down syndrome, at the 35th week of pregnancy.

Green told the newspaper how the doctor only talked about the negative consequences of having a Down syndrome baby. In spite of the pressure she went ahead and two weeks later gave birth. Other children are not so fortunate. According to the Telegraph, in the United Kingdom 62% of Down syndrome cases are detected in the womb, and 92% of those unborn babies are aborted.

Similarly, the Sunday Times on May 28 described how more than 20 babies had been aborted at a late stage of pregnancy because they suffered from club feet. The numbers came from data published by the Office for National Statistics, for 1996-2004.

In addition, four other babies were aborted because they had webbed figures or extra digits. These problems, like club feet, can be corrected by surgery.

A similar situation was reported in the Australian state of Victoria, reported the local Herald Sun on June 4. According to the state's Perinatal Data Collection Unit, there were 12 late-term abortions in 2004 for babies suffering from conditions such as club foot, cleft palate and dwarfism.

Efforts to "perfect" the race sometimes reach levels reminiscent of Nazi times. An investigation is under way into complaints made by more than 80 Gypsy women in the Czech Republic that they were sterilized.

The cases date from 1986 to 2004, the Christian Science Monitor reported Sept. 6. The newspaper added that sterilizations of Gypsy women also take place in countries such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The push for medical perfection, it seems, has yet to reach its limits.

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