What You Don’t Know May Save You
The Christmas issue of Time magazine had a baby on the cover–not the baby whose birth we celebrate each Christmas but a baby of the future–one whose entire genetic profile can be known before he or she is even born. Not surprisingly, the baby on the cover looks worried. He is surrounded by an assorted list of genetic defects, and below his feet sits the tagline: "New genetic tests can point to risks – but not always a cure."
The article opens anecdotally, highlighting the pandora's box of confusion and anxiety that was opened upon an unsuspecting mother who had her 9-year-old daughter genetically tested. The tests shed no light on her daughter's mysterious ailment, but raised countless other concerns in the process–concerns which eventually led the entire family to be tested. What did all the testing accomplish? Probably nothing, apart from exponentially increasing their stress and despair. Knowing about threats that might develop in the future can be a paralyzing thing, and even for those predispositions that can be treated in the present, one still wonders whether the treatment is worse than the threat. How much of a child's "childhood" should parents take away in an effort to shrink their chances of developing Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or diabetes decades down the road? You get the feeling that whatever may be gained in the end is not worth what must be given up to get there. Is quantity of life really that much more important than quality of life?
Of course, these are relatively minor concerns compared to the most paramount threat genetic testing poses. The TIME article introduces that threat this way:
Perhaps nowhere is the risk of overreacting to murky results greater than in the field of prenatal testing. This year two groups of researchers announced that they had each sequenced a fetus' DNA from cells gathered from the mother's blood, leading to concerns that in the not-too-distant future, women might abort a pregnancy if they learn their unborn baby has an increased risk for cancer.
On the one hand, it's a bit ironic that concerns over increased genetic testing leading to increased abortions are even raised. After all, both TIME magazine and Bonnie Rochman, who wrote the story, fall squarely into the "pro-choice" camp. TIME recently named Barack Obama, a president who relentlessly supports abortion rights, its Person of the Year, and Rochman has written a slew of articles on abortion. Her latest two are titled, "Why Abortion is Less Risky than Childbirth," and "Having an Abortion Doesn't Lead to Depression."
On the other hand, the fact that this concern is raised tells us something. If abortion were truly an amoral procedure, on par with getting a tooth pulled or having tonsils removed, the reasons for having one wouldn't matter. Parents who aborted their fetus for having a propensity towards asthma or obesity would have nothing to hang their heads about. Neither would parents who aborted because they wanted a taller or smarter child, or because they didn't want a girl. If the fetus is a morally inconsequential human being, then the reasons for aborting are equally inconsequential. The fact that even the staunchest abortion advocates get a bit squirrelly when trying to justify sex-selection abortion exposes the truth.
The reason people on both sides of the abortion divide cringe at these more flippant rationales is because we all know that a human fetus is not morally inconsequential. The reason it sounds so outrageous to kill an unborn child for having a genetic predisposition towards obesity or asthma or even homosexuality is because it is outrageous to kill an unborn child, period. Bonnie Rochman suggests that increased DNA testing "might" lead to increased abortions. You can throw out "might" and replace it with "will"–unless something significant changes.
Enhanced prenatal testing has already made abortion the "treatment" of choice for parents who find out their child has Down Syndrome. Around the globe, prenatal testing has led to a gender gap that sits somewhere between 100 and 200 million. We need not speculate. The practical fallout of increased prenatal testing is real and grim. But there is no turning back. The tests are here, and as Anne Wojcicki, CEO of a new genetic-testing start-up predicts, "at some point in time everyone will be genotyped at birth."
So what do we do when (in the words of Bonnie Rochman) "our powers outpace our principles and protocols?" Since suppressing the progress won't work, we must give attention to principals and protocols. Certainly, the debate over protocols is already taking place and the consensus among much of the medical community that "only results that [can] be immediately acted on should be shared" seems a good one. Interestingly, Nancy Spinner, a geneticist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, says the impetus for not sharing certain information stems from a commitment to the most basic medical principle: do no harm. Releasing too much information, she argues, can do positive harm.
But protocols can only take us so far.
Genetic testing only poses a threat to unborn children so long as unborn children are seen as potential instead of reality. So we must work to demonstrate that these are real, living human beings–not hypothetical, future people. Until we create a cultural commitment to preserving and protecting innocent life, genetic testing will continue to bode ill for the innocent and vulnerable. Second, we cannot live in bondage to fear and uncertainty. When you free your mind from the sovereignty of God (or fate and providence if you prefer those terms), you abandon yourself to a cold and cruel future. While obsessing over real or imagined threats, we create for ourselves a wretched present. Hope and joy can still be had in a broken body, just as fear and misery can consume someone of perfect health. There is much more at play than the mere biology of disease, so we must learn to hope in more than medicine.
I was struck by one rather remarkable "side note" in the article. One of the challenges to the storage and retrieval of genetic testing is the sheer volume of each person's genetic code. "Genomic transcripts are also so massive," Rochman writes, "labs typically FedEx a hard drive because there's too much data to transmit digitally." Think about that. These are not video files or audio files. These are lines of code, and the entire transcript is so massive that physical hard drives are still required to store and share them. There are literally billions of things that can go wrong in a human body. You can either destroy yourself with worry or marvel at the incalculable complexity of God's most remarkable creation.
Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.