Prenatal Genetic Testing is an Unethical Form of Playing God


Change and progress aren't the same thing. Things, for instance, can change for the worse. To know the difference between change and progress, we need some sort of objective standard. Though technology presents us with new possibilities and options, the moral and spiritual questions presented by new technology require deep reflection, and caution.

Consider, for instance, genetic testing. Yesterday American Medical News reported that there is a new form of prenatal genetic testing coming down the pike. Using blood from the mother, fetal DNA is analyzed and will be able to "identify an unborn child’s risk of developing chronic diseases later in life and possibly shed light on other traits, such as athletic ability and intelligence." The use of this testing is of obvious benefit; whereas in the past parents may have been unaware of the potential troubles a special needs child might present until birth, prenatal testing allows families and medical teams to effectively prepare for the arrival. The ability to forecast diseases and disorders that might emerge later in life gives parents years to contemplate and plan. Moreover, the ability to utilize blood rather than amniotic fluid makes this test less painful and invasive than previous forms of prenatal testing.

What I find disturbing is not the fact that we have access to more knowledge concerning the health and well-being of the children we bear; rather, I am disturbed by what we will do with that knowledge. Medical News goes on to detail the ethical problems this new technology will certainly produce: "Although the new pool of data could help families make more informed choices about whether to continue a pregnancy or terminate it, some experts fear that the wealth of information will lead to undue anxiety."

The somewhat benign wording the author uses fails to communicate the gravity of the choice being made. Parents, armed with knowledge produced by genetic testing, vet which lives to welcome into their family and which lives are terminated. But what on Earth gives a person the right or authority the make that decision? We have been down this road before, and it didn't turn out so well.

Consider how the Nazi's viewed human life. Rejecting any doctrine of human equality, they considered some lives lebensunwertes leben — life unworthy of life. They made the distinction between those who are worthy and those who aren't, and thus created gradations among human beings. Today, ethicists such as Peter Singer and Mary Anne Warren support evaluating human life in light of one's abilities or capacities.

This understanding of human life is wholly out of step with the Western tradition. The idea of human equality was revolutionary and embraces equity not of abilities, capacities or level of dependency, or location, but equality of nature. We are all equally human. The profound dignity and inherent worth of the person should remain at the center of moral discourse.

Those who might accuse me of alarmism or attacking straw men need only consider the fact that we are already using existing methods of prenatal screening to filter out those members of our society we deem to much of a burden. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued, "the elimination or pre-emption, through careful reproductive planning, of the weaker members of the human species — has become a more realistic possibility than it ever was in the 1920s and ’30s." And of course, we have China's one child policy, which famously discriminates against females.

The burdens families of special needs children face are incredibly daunting. But the alternative — embracing eugenics and an ethic of inequality — must be taken off the table as an option.