By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, JAN. 28, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The quest for a perfect child is leading to the increasing use of techniques to discover possible health problems in the unborn. Normally this is not done with a view to healing, and results in the deaths of embryos considered imperfect.
It Italy court decisions are in effect undoing a legal prohibition against the use of such screening programs, known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). A 2004 national law vetoes screening embryos before they are implanted in the mothers’ womb.
Nevertheless, a court in the Lazio region of Italy last week declared this restriction as being “illegitimate,” reported the Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera on Jan. 24. Already in past months local tribunals in Florence and in the Sardinian city of Cagliari had come to similar decisions.
In the Cagliari decision the judge upheld a mother’s request to screen her in-vitro embryos for a hereditary blood disorder, reported the Italian news agency ANSA on Sept. 25. At the time both the Italian bishops’ conference and Catholic politicians were strongly critical of the ruling.
In fact, in 2006 the nation’s top tribunal, the Constitutional Court, heard a challenge to the 2004 law regarding its banning of PGD, and the court upheld the statute. “I thought judges were supposed to apply the law and that their interpretations were based on what the Constitutional Court decides,” said Monsignor Giuseppe Betori, secretary of the bishops’ conference, in comments reported by ANSA following the Cagliari decision.
The Vatican also weighed in after the subsequent Florence decision. Eliminating an embryo is equivalent to homicide, declared Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, in comments reported by the Repubblica newspaper Dec. 24.
The trend to increasing use of PGD is very evident in England. A couple recently received approval to test their embryos for a genetic defect that leads to high cholesterol levels, reported the Times newspaper on Dec. 15.
The approval, by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, was given in relation to a genetic trait that is a relatively rare condition and which can lead to the death of children at an early age. The Times noted, however, that the couple have a milder form of this genetic problem and that it could well result that the embryos would have a good chance of becoming children with reasonably healthy lives.
Shortly after this authorization it was argued that deaf parents should be allowed to screen their embryos so as to be able to pick a deaf child, reported the Sunday Times on Dec. 23. According to Jackie Ballard, chief executive of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People, a small minority of couples would prefer to have a deaf child so as “to fit in better with the family lifestyle.”
Some practitioners of embryo screening were not in agreement. “This would be an abuse of medical technology,” stated Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the Bridge Center, a clinic in London that screens embryos, according to the Sunday Times.
Earlier in the year approval was granted to screen embryos for a gene that brings with it an increased risk of breast cancer, reported the Times on July 21. The article commented that not all those with the gene will necessarily develop breast cancer, meaning that the screening will lead to destroying some embryos that would have been healthy.
Along with increased use of PGD to eliminate “defective” embryos arguments are also being made in favor of using such techniques to improving the human race. We should use genetic engineering and reproductive technology to produce “enhanced” people, argued John Harris in his 2007 book, “Enhancing Evolution: The Ethical Case for Making People Better” (Princeton University Press).
Harris is a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester law school and a member of Britain’s Human Genetics Commission.
The author does not settle for half measures. If we wish to make the world a better place we need to change humanity, he argued, even to the point where we or our descendants “will cease to be human in the sense in which we now understand the idea,” says Harris in the book’s introduction.
Harris adopts a utilitarian approach in which he maintains that such a course of action is not only desirable, but is also morally legitimate, as it has for its aim making our lives better.
The pragmatic orientation of his arguments leads Harris to deny embryos, and even newborns, the status of human individuals. Persons are properly called individuals, he advocated in one of the book’s chapters, when they are “capable of valuing their own existence.”
Another recent book in favor of genetically modifying future generations is: “Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice, (Yale University Press) by Ronald M. Green. The author, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College, is less extreme than Harris, but still declares himself in favor of interventions in our own and our children’s genetic makeup.
Green did acknowledge that there are some grounds for concern over where such genetic modification may lead. While distinguishing his position from the more extreme attitude of seeing human beings as perfectly malleable he did, however, conclude that we should accept changing our genetic structures.
The pressure in favor of eugenics has not gone unanswered. Last October Nobel Prize winner James Watson declared that blacks are generally inferior in intelligence to whites. In an Oct. 24 article commenting on the issue, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote about the eugenics temptation.
About 90% of fetuses found to have Down syndrome are aborted in America, he noted. Such practices give absolute power to one generation of defining what is normal and beautiful, and this inevitably leads to discrimination, he adverted. We should choose human equality over the pursuit of human perfection, he recommended.
Eugenics has long been condemned by the Church. In its 1987 Instruction on Respect for Human Life (Donum Vitae) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dealt with this issue, along with other questions related to artificial methods of reproduction.
One of the questions dealt with in the document, signed by the then prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dealt with the question of the morality of PGD. If the prenatal diagnosis respects the life and integrity of the embryo, and is directed toward its safeguarding or healing, then it is licit, the instruction stated.
Right to life
“But this diagnosis is gravely opposed to the moral law when it is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion depending upon the results,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warned. A diagnosis that reveals some illness “must not be the equivalent of a death sentence,” the instruction added.
Eliminating embryos who suffer from malformations or hereditary illness, is a violation of the unborn child’s right to life and as an abuse of the rights and duties of the spouses, the document concluded.
This teaching was confirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2268. In an explanation dealing with the Fifth Commandment that forbids direct and intentional killing, the Catechism specifically included eugenics. “Concern for eugenics or public health cannot justify any murder, even if commanded by public authority,” the number states. Warnings increasingly being ignored as a post-Christian society, under the pretext of progress, returns to barbaric practices.