Thursday 14 June 2012

A World of Two Brothers

Anton Freeman differs from his brother Vincent in a variety of ways; he is immune to mental disorders and has a healthier heart; while Anton enjoys a strong athletic stamina Vincent is myopic and weak; Anton has great aspirations while Vincent has a life expectancy of only 30.2 years. Vincent has been born naturally while Anton was born through genetic selection.

The Freeman brothers are characters from Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film Gattaca, set in ‘the-not-too-distant future’ where only foetuses exhibiting the best of their parental traits are born. With the news that scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle have managed to map the genome sequence of a foetus at 18 weeks old, it would seem that the ‘not-too-distant future’ is appearing on the horizon.

Using DNA from the saliva of the father and a blood sample of the mother, Dr Jay Shendure and his team managed to differentiate the free flowing 10% of the foetus’ DNA from that of the mother’s in her bloodstream. This allowed the team to predict with 98% accuracy the foetus’s susceptibility to over 3000 Mendelian disorders such as Huntingtons disease and Cystic Fibrosis. Societies across the globe are said to have between three and five years to discuss to what extent (if at all) regulate such testing before it is available for public use.

Today, roughly 1% of babies are born with a Mendelian disorder and this figure is seen to be increasing due to the rising age at which women give birth. Such a breakthrough has the potential to alleviate a great deal of emotional and physical discomfort or distress for both child and parent. The ability to offer parents the choice of terminating a foetus with a strong likelihood of spending a life in debilitated by such a disorder is likened by some to Pasteur’s breakthrough against smallpox in the 19th century. A government attempting to limit such medical advancement offering parents such a choice would undoubtedly attract resistance.

However there is currently strong opposition from religious and conservative groups to Dr Shendure’s work due to fear that it will lead to a steep rise in abortions. Josephine Quintavalle from the UK-based Pro-Life Alliance told The Daily Telegraph, ‘one always hopes, vainly, that in utero testing will be for the benefit of the unborn child’ but ‘it is difficult to imagine that this new test will not lead to more abortions’. Figures appear to support Quintavalle’s concerns, reporting that 90% of foetus that have been valued with Downs syndrome (currently able to be identified through pre-natal testing) were terminated.
A further concern is that relatively minor or intellectual impairments will qualify in some parents’ minds as grounds for abortion. The New York Times quotes Marcy Darnovsky, associate executive director of the centre for Genetics and Society, a public interest group in Berkeley, saying that ‘some scenarios are extremely troubling’ as such tests leads to questions on ‘who deserves to be born’. It is here that we enter upon the world of Gattaca. People are concerned that Dr Shendure’s work will lead to the horror of cosmetically motivated termination in attempts to ensure crystal blue eyes, physical prowess and the avoidance of that undesirable family nose.

As always, money enters the debate. The cost of the screening today has been estimated at between $20 000 to $50 000. Though by the time this screening is offered to the public it is likely to be lower, the cost is likely to still be out of reach for many families, leading many to fear it will create a further divide between rich and poor, where the former will have not only more indulged and better educated children, but children with better looks, stronger limbs, healthier hearts and bigger brains. Furthermore, one can look to an uncomfortable image of future international relations where more religious or less affluent states do not utilise the technology while others rejoice amongst genetically superior citizens.

Dr Shendure announced that ‘this is not science fiction anymore’ and one must be careful not to get carried away in imaginary worlds akin to those of HG Wells. However, it is equally important not to underestimate the strong consequences of Dr Shendure’s research may lead to. The dawn of artificial selection as opposed to natural selection will lead to many cries of humanity ‘playing God’. Whether or not this is a just claim, even a rational mind will be able to look ahead and envisage the dawn of a world where medical research strives not to make people better but to make better people.

Bertie Digby Alexander
London 2012
Originally published on -

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