Playing God in the Womb

GodIn a recent article, NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof discussed the concept "When we play God with our own species." Kristof brings back to the forefront the ever-changing status of medical technology for genetic screening of embryos.

The opening premise of the article was a trip that Kristof took to India where he encountered Americans looking for potential surrogate mothers. The potential savings is tremendous to have an international surrogate, even if a little questionable. The money quote follows the opening context. Kristof writes, "Ultimately, that kind of surrogacy could be mixed with genetic screening of embryos—to weed out babies of the ‘wrong’ gender or with the ‘wrong’ characteristics—to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance. Yes, all this gives me the willies, too."

I for one am glad that Kristof gets the "willies" from the idea of combining surrogacy and genetic screening "to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance." I hope the rest of us get the willies at that idea as well. Kristof then presents one of the most pressing issues in ethics today as he writes, "So some of the most monumental decisions we will face in the coming years will involve where we draw the line making some genetic tinkering legal and some illegal."

At this point in the article, it looks like Kristof is quite in touch with ethical issues, especially for a newspaper columnist. My problem is that he moves from description to prescription as the article unfolds. Kristof presents one of the newest ethical challenges in the realm of the unborn as he describes preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). This procedure "allows a couple to test embryos that have been created in vitro when they are roughly 3 days old. PGD is now used principally to test for serious genetic diseases, including Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs. But it could equally be used to test for milder risks." While this procedure is exclusively for in vitro embryos, similar types of tests exist for babies in utero. Such tests can also determine the gender of the baby and potentially other genetic predispositions. The end result is that some parents might "opt out" of continuing the life of the child in hopes of getting a "more suitable child" the next time.

Near the end of the article, Kristof offers his vote for the role of PGD and other genetic screening. He writes, "As for genetic screening, I would accept PGD to cull embryos at risk for medical problems. And my vote is to allow parents to use PGD to choose the sex of a child in the United States, although I would feel differently in countries like China and India where the son preference could create a huge shortage of girls. What should cross the line into illegality is fiddling with the heritable DNA of humans to make them smarter, faster or more pious—or more deaf. That is playing God with our species, and we should ban it."

I appreciate Mr. Kristof’s effort in establishing some sort of ethical standard in this controversial realm; however, I believe he has missed the mark in a few of areas. Let’s first look at the rationale used in the argument and then draw some biblical perspective into the debate. First, I get the "willies" when I read the words "I would accept PGD to cull embryos…." Wow! Are we to the point of culling humans? Merriam-Webster defines "to cull" as "to reduce or control the size of (as a herd) by removal (as by hunting) of especially weaker animals." I did not realize we had reached that point with the human race. To Kristof’s benefit, I do not believe he meant it entirely in this sense, but the other definitions of the word do not fit the context. On the other hand, he very well may have intended exactly what he said.

Second, the PGD test and others basically can only tell that the child is "at risk" of having a certain condition—they cannot confirm the existence of that condition. Thus, "well-intentioned" parents could end the life of a perfectly healthy child who only showed signs of a certain disease but did not actually have it. Again, this is a tragic situation.

Third, why is it right to end the lives of children who have certain medical conditions? Is a child with Down syndrome more likely to have medical issues and learning disabilities? Certainly. Does that mean that such children cannot live productive lives? By no means! We recently reconnected with some friends from North Carolina after having moved away 7 months ago. They have a child with Down syndrome. I only got to see him in the church setting, but my wife was able to observe him in a preschool setting during the week as well. Having not seen him in over 7 months, I fully expected him to be the same, hard-to-control but loving child I knew before we left. To my surprise, he had advanced significantly in the span of several months. He was able to feed himself without difficulty and perform simple tasks without immediate supervision. I was astounded. Even though his parents were encouraged to terminate the pregnancy upon finding out that he would probably have Down syndrome, he has proven to me that children with serious medical conditions can lead fairly normal lives. It may take extra work and a few more tears, but isn’t that what parenting is all about?!

Fourth, Kristof offers a situational approach to gender selection that is based upon regions of the world. Gender "culling" would be appropriate, in his opinion, in countries like the US where parents are typically open to having both boys and girls. However, it would be inappropriate in China and India where girls would almost always be eliminated due to the population controls already in place from those governments. Now why in the world would this be right in some parts of the world and wrong in others? I propose that Kristof sees it this way because he employs some form of consequentialist ethics in all areas. In essence he is saying that our decisions regarding right and wrong should be based on the circumstances at the time and how the consequences of that decision will play out. In this case, the consequences of gender selection in the US would be minimal (he assumes); however, the consequences of gender selection in China would be devastating to the subsequent generations because there would not be enough females to continue the Chinese population into the next generation. While this may seem reasonable on the surface, let us turn the question around. What if it were determined that a certain abnormal gene predisposed someone to be a journalist? Since we know that journalists (especially of the blogging type) do little more than stir up trouble, it is in the best interest in the US to cull out children who are predisposed to be journalists because we already have plenty to keep the profession going. However, China is lacking journalists to stand up for freedom of speech; therefore, it would be wrong to cull out those children. You say that’s ridiculous! Of course it is. But there is little more logic in Kristof’s reasoning. If we apply a consequentialist approach to ethical decision-making, then we could justify almost anything we want.

What does Scripture say about PGD, genetic screening, and gender selection? Well, not really anything. Suffice it to say that such technological advances didn’t hit the streets during the times of the prophets or apostles. Scripture does speak, however, to the issues of life and death and speaks specifically about life in the womb. In Psalm 139:14 the psalmist says, "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well." The prophet Jeremiah records God’s proclamation, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5).And in Isaiah 49:1, the prophet states, "Listen to Me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb; from the body of my mother He named me." These passages clearly speak to God’s knowledge of the child in the womb and His handiwork in crafting them together. Thus, it is not man who forms the child, but the Father himself who does the handiwork. Who are we to play God in the womb (or in the Petri dish)?

For those who would consider following the advice of Mr. Kristof and being open to the idea of gender selection, then admonish you to consider who is the author of life. Is it man or is it God? If it is God, then let Him do His job.

*While not the point of this post, there are also issues related to in vitro fertilization that should be taken into consideration as a part of the argument. I will attempt to address those issues in a later post. Suffice it to say, we need to be grateful for technological advances in modern science and medicine; however, not all things are profitable.

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