For the Handicapped, Some Are Quick to Kill

Preimplantation Diagnosis Makes Gains in Germany

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By Paul De Meyer
ROME, DEC. 8, 2010 ( In the Germany of Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel, the political debate on so-called preimplantation diagnosis, or PID, is gaining momentum.

Known also as PDG or Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, this process is carried out in the very first phases of the life of an embryo created in vitro, that is, when it is made up of just eight cells.

One or at most two of the cells are collected and then analyzed to single out possible chromosomal anomalies or genetic defects, or to establish if the child is compatible as a blood, marrow or tissue donor for a sick sibling (so-called designer babies).

The practice is banned by a 1991 law on the protection of embryos, but debate was reopened by a July 6 decision from the Federal Court of Appeal in Leipzig.
According to the court, which acquitted gynecologist Matthias Bloechle, recourse to the PID of embryos created in vitro cannot be prohibited or impede parents with a predisposition to serious genetic defects from opting for embryonal selection. In 2005 and 2006 in Berlin, the doctor treated three couples with a predisposition to genetic illnesses, one of which already had a handicapped daughter. He implanted in the uterus of the woman in question only embryos revealed to be «healthy» after a PID.
Whereas the Association of German Doctors — the Bundesarztekammer — and the Minister of Justice, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, were pleased with the decision, pro-life movements, many politicians and the Catholic Church were «consternated.»

In taking a position, the German Bishops’ Conference stated that to discard or kill embryos with genetic defects is unacceptable and «contradicts our understanding of the human being.» The delegate of the German government for disabled persons, Hubert Huppe, said the PID technique means that «persons with a handicap are now discarded before birth.» A similar judgment was also made by the president of the Christian Democrats for Life (CDL), Mechthild Lohr: Now it will be doctors and parents who decide if a concrete life «is worthy of being lived» or not.

Tailor made
Moreover, in an interview with Domradio of Cologne, Jesuit Father Josef Schuster, a professor of moral theology at the Theological Faculty of Sankt Georgen, in Frankfurt on Main, expressed his fears of a «break of the dam.» As in the case of so-called therapeutic abortion, one risks ending up on the feared «slippery slope,» headed toward the creation of true and proper children «tailor made» according to the tastes and needs of the parents.
Gathered in a congress in Karslruhe, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) followed the line of Chancellor Angela Merkel and voted Nov. 16 in favor of a ban on preimplantation diagnosis. However, the controversial technique has its supporters at the heart of the Christian Democratic formation, among them the vice-president of the CDU and former Minister for the Family, Ursula von der Leyen, and the present minister, Kristina Schroder. They promote it for genetically predisposed couples.

The «no» vote was approved by a very small majority of those attending the congress (51% against 49% or 408 delegates out of 799), showing how the subject splits the party. This mirrors the profound split within German society on the lawfulness of the technique; supporters as well as opponents are active trying to build transversal majorities in view of a forthcoming vote in the Federal Lower Chamber.
As the chief writer of the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, Markus Gunther, wrote on Nov. 19, «It’s not necessary to demonize the supporters of the PID.» Nevertheless the technique «opens the door to the selection of human beings» and increases the pressures on couples, who in the case of the birth of a handicapped child or with Down Syndrome now risk having to justify themselves. According to the author, «the desire to want to control and decide everything autonomously is perhaps old insofar as humanity goes, but it contradicts the foundations of the human condition.»
On Nov. 27, on the occasion of the Vigil of Prayer for Nascent Life called by Benedict XVI, Bishop Heinz Josef Algermissen of Fulda criticized the recent jurisprudence of German courts on the subject of bioethics. In a homily in the cathedral of Fulda, the prelate rejected expressly the July 6 court decision, which has «authorized preimplantation diagnosis, to impede the birth […] of sick children.»

He noted that the embryo is developing as a human being, not toward becoming a human being.

Not foolproof
Moreover, it must not be forgotten that the PID is not infallible and that the risk of errors is always present, in the sense of either «false positives» or «false negatives» (the embryo is implanted but the child is then born with the pathology that was to be avoided). For chromosomal pathologies, the percentage of errors can be around 15%, reminded in 2008 geneticist Bruno Dallapiccola, scientific director of the Bambino Gesu pediatric hospital of Rome and co-president of Science and Life, in an interview with the newspaper Avvenire.

As a case in point, in 2008, an Australian couple filed a law suit against the IVF center of Monash University of Melbourne. Their son — one of the first Australian babies conceived in vitro to be subjected to the PID because of the presence of an hereditary tumor — was nevertheless born with the defective gene.

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