A ‘Genetic Outlaw’ Speaks Out

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September 24, 2006

A law professor in Minneapolis has recently become an “outlaw” in the eyes of some. Her crime? She chose not to have an abortion when she received a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Elizabeth Schiltz had her baby anyway, and writes about her experience in Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (2006, Spinifex Press). She also tells of other women who have faced severe pressure to abort because they were carrying a less-than-perfect baby.

Modern technologies have created a crisis of too much information. From the older methods of amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling, to more recent techniques for preimplantation genetic screening of embryos, women have more reasons not to have their babies than ever before. It is well known that almost 50% of fertility centers now permit screening of embryos for gender, with the “wrong” sex discarded. Many centers are able to eliminate the carriers of certain genetic traits, some of which have little or nothing to do with disease.

Primplantation genetic diagnosis, or its modern cousin, preimplantation genetic haplotyping, can now screen embryos for 6,000 different diseases. This has led Professor Schiltz to remark, “I can’t help but see 6,000 new reasons that parents will be branded as sinners or made to feel socially irresponsible for bringing their children into this world.”

What the eminently quotable James Russell Lowell has said about mishaps is surely true of modern biotechnologies: they are like knives that either serve us or cut us, as we grasp them by the blade or by the handle. The ultimate victim of all this will be human nature, sacrificed on the altar of our desire for perfection.

For more about Elizabeth Schiltz: http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jul2006/tc20060720_148057.htm

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