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The New York Times has seen the future. According to a recent, ominously titled article, “Couples Cull Embryos to Halt Heritage of Cancer,” it will not be long before a parent can choose her child the way a diner chooses her meal at a restaurant. “Soon...prospective parents may be able to choose between an embryo that could become a child with a lower risk of colon cancer who is likely to be fat, or one who is likely to be thin but has a slightly elevated risk of Alzheimer’s, or a boy likely to be short with low cholesterol but a significant risk of Parkinson’s, or a girl likely to be tall with a moderate risk of diabetes.”
What the article does not emphasize is that if the tall girl with a risk of diabetes is chosen, the other three will likely be left to die.
Many newspapers are reporting that preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or P.G.D., is growing in popularity. P.G.D. is a process that begins with in vitro fertilization, where eggs are removed from the mother’s body and fertilized by sperm in a petri dish, creating a set of human embryos. When these embryos are three to five days old they consist of eight cells. One of those cells is removed and genetically tested for diseases, such as colon cancer, breast cancer, Down syndrome, or cystic fibrosis. Scientists can also determine whether the tiny embryo is a boy or a girl. Based on this information, parents can decide which embryos they want to keep, abandoning the rest.
With this technology, we usher in a dangerous new eugenics movement. The theory of eugenics was developed by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), who was Charles Darwin’s half-cousin. Natural selection, which drives Darwin’s evolution, says that the strong, fit, and well-adapted survive in nature, while the weak and sickly die off. Therefore, the strong pass their healthy genes to the next generation, and the evolutionary tree grows up and up.
In human societies, Galton noticed, evolution is thwarted. Whereas natural selection requires that the weak die early, leaving few, if any, children, society actually protects the poor and the sickly. This compassion for the weak works against evolution and creates a “reversion towards mediocrity.” Galton, and many others at that time, believed that, by practicing selective breeding, human societies could weed out those who were prone to illness or other undesirable traits, thus putting evolution back on track. After all, who wouldn’t want an improved genetic pool?
The eugenics movement was big in the United States in the early 20th century. It took the form of forced sterilizations, reduced immigration quotas for those from “inferior stock”, and marriage laws that prevented the “epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded” from marrying. It was also big in Nazi Germany, where it took the form of the Holocaust.
After facing the grim reality of the Holocaust, eugenics lost its public appeal...for a time. Still, the hope of an improved gene pool seems too tempting for some to resist.
Modern eugenics seeks to project a kinder, gentler visage. Today’s eugenics isn’t about government officials in state offices determining who can or cannot marry. Its proponents maintain it is about mothers and fathers who want to protect their children from debilitating family diseases. Who wouldn’t want their baby boy or girl to be as healthy as possible?
Unfortunately, this understandable desire has led to the destruction of numerous embryonic human beings. With genetic screening, parents now know before their child is born whether or not it has undesirable handicaps, like Down syndrome. A 2002 study found that, when tests determine that a pre-born child has Down syndrome, the parents choose abortion 91-93% of the time. Our desire for healthy children is leading us to destroy those with actual or potential handicaps.
With P.G.D., children are created in a lab, tested, and graded. Those who fail the test are destroyed. In the New York Times article, a teacher named Denise Toeckes, who has a genetic mutation that puts her at a higher risk for breast cancer, says, “It’s like children are admitted to a family only if they pass the test...It’s like, ‘If you have a gene, we don’t want you; if you have the potential to develop cancer, you can’t be in our family.’ “
Articles about P.G.D. often imply that, thanks to the technology, a child is saved from a genetic disease, but that simply is not the case. As many handicapped and at-risk children are conceived today as ever before. The only difference is that now, when the handicap or risk is detected, the unborn child is likely to be discarded or destroyed.
Cynics respond, “Who cares?” If Darwin was right, maybe all these genetically unhealthy people really do just pollute the gene pool. Maybe they are the source of unnecessary suffering, for their families, for the state, and even for themselves. Perhaps they really are “lives unworthy of life,” a category of people targeted for destruction by Hitler’s euthanasia program.
Such cynicism runs counter to Judeo-Christian values. The Scriptures teach that human beings have worth, value, and dignity because they are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). We have been redeemed not merely with silver and gold but with the “precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18, NIV). Our worth is not determined on the basis of what we can do, or how we look, or how smart we are. It is based on who we are and what God has done for us.
God loves us notwithstanding our diseases, handicaps, and sin. Christ never shrank from reaching out to the blind, the lame, or the leper—and neither should we.