Test Tube Babies

Last week a lot of news was focused on a baby born in Seville. In vitro fertilization has been around for decades now, so that's not the news. In this case the parents let it be known publicly that their baby boy had begun his existence as a conscious decision made in the laboratory, the embryo chosen for its particular genetic characteristics. It turns out the parents have an older son who suffers a rare form of fatal anemia which now can be treated with "mother cells" in the blood of the new born's umbilical cord. This was the news-another medical breakthrough. It seems like a great story–baby brother saves big brother's life. But not everyone sees it that way. The head of the Spanish Episcopal Conference published a very harsh note condemning this case. The position of the catholic church is well known: discarding unused embryos that result from in vitro fertilization is unacceptable, immoral. It's discarding life. On the surface, in this case that position seems absurd. Do the unused embryos really merit the same consideration as the new born baby? Most people approve of the procedure and do not seem overly concerned about the disposal of unused embryos; after all, they are at the earliest possible stage of cell division and only exist in a test tube. And in this case, the process results in two lives- a new life that saves the life of another. How could anyone in their right mind be against that? Yet, I do believe there is a very tough ethical issue here. The most lamentable observation made last week was by the head of some self-proclaimed bioethical panel. He said the only ethical position to take on this case was not to consider it an ethical issue. Huh? Of course it's about ethics. Is it really so unreasonable to consider that life begins at conception? If you start with that premise, then of course you do have a real ethical dilemma in a case like this. There is no solving this debate for now. But even more worrisome in my view is the lurking danger that in our eagerness to solve horrible medical conditions we end up sliding down a slope of increasingly fascistic consequences (for lack of a better expression at the moment) regarding human reproduction. What happens as the human genome becomes more and more understood, as a series of scientific advances bring having a baby closer to the realm of choosing a meal from a menu? And if it turns out there is a gene for homosexuality, for example? And couples start testing for that, and aborting because of the gene... Is that really so far-fetched? And imagine totalitarian states taking over control of reproduction. It seems like the stuff of wild science fiction. Yet, many see horrible realities already, even without the use of new technologies: China's efforts at demographic control, for example, or the obsession of having male descendants in some societies and the lengths some couples will go to make sure that happens. The church's position can seem cruel, but I think rather than dismiss it so automatically, we would do well to keep alive the debate. (The problem with the church, of course, is that for many of us it has little credibility when it comes to defending human rights.) Regardless, you don't have to identify with the church in order to be a skeptic regarding the direction we're headed in. Maybe, just maybe, some of these bioethical challenges will turn out to be just temporary; that is, maybe someday intelligent decisions regarding reproduction will be made before conception. We might make a modest start by getting serious about having systematic, high quality sex education. No kid moves beyond 7th grade, for example, without a solid understanding of basic reproductive biology and methods of birth control. Reading, writing, and arithmetic. And sex ed. And not of the abstinence only kind. Just a thought.

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