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Baby born with less chance of getting cancer, and people are upset

Saturday, 10 January, 2009

In the United Kingdom, a child has been born without a mutated allele of the BRCA1 gene, a gene known to create a risk for breast and ovarian cancer if it is mutated. Yet, because this baby was chosen as an embryo on the basis that it did not have this mutation (and other embryos, with the mutation, were not implanted), people are throwing the E-word left and right. Well, mostly just known bio-conservative Josephine Quintivalle:

Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “This is nothing personal towards the girl, but I think we have gone too far. […] Underlying all this is eugenics.”

Whether PGD and selective implantation is eugenics depends on what is meant by this very loose term. If eugenics is to mean killing people because they are ‘unfit’ or controlling people’s reproductive lives, then this is surely not eugenics, as embryos are not yet people and this procedure was consented to by the parents. But, if eugenics is to mean attempting to improve on humans, then perhaps this is eugenics. The issue is, the E-word carries many implications of the former attrocities, and so I feel it is too misleading to be used here.

Mrs Quintavalle was then reported as saying the message was that

“you are better off dead, than being born with this gene”.

Of course, Mrs Quintivalle can now join other bio-conservatives, and Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-moon, as a member of the group of people who don’t realise that there is a difference between not existing and being dead. Although to be fair, these people do see the destruction of embryos as killing of people, so if they were right (but they are not) they might have a point. Although, such a point would best be expressed as ‘you are better off not being born at all, than being born with this gene’. But as embryos are not people, and can’t be called ‘you’ nor empathised with, there is no point.

This birth is a key one, as it represents the first use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis to prevent the mere risk of a disease, rather than the certainty. This is seen as being on the road to designer babies, but fortunately when it comes to using biotechnology to prevent or cure disease, many people are accepting of the idea. Let’s just hope they remain accepting of enhancing the speed and reflexes of a child, such as to reduce their risk of being in a car accident or being hit by a bus.

5 comments

  1. […] This is the view that you’ll find represented most prominently in the BBC article, and at H+biopolitics (which deserves a h/t here for posting first on this: thanks!). This is a medical triumph that […]


  2. The kid has the gene, just not the mutated variant that was selected against.


  3. You’re right utilitarian. I’ve been away from my genetics textbooks too long. The post has been updated accordingly.


  4. Chances are the ‘proper one’ still got cancer, just different type… and they are still thousand of other dieseases
    Maybe the ‘inproper’ embryo had better copies of other genes ? Maybe s/he would die in the age of 40 but before it would have great achievements or just lead a full happy life ? Cancer doesn’t cross over one’s life !And there are many ways for parents to make their unborn child healthy (the simplest of all- being healthy and fit when planning a child),why such effort to choose that one gene? To say “yes we did something for our child,we gave him the proper version of one of its 21 thousands genes” ?


    • Chances are the ‘proper one’ still got cancer, just different type… and they are still thousand of other dieseases

      That’s probably true, but who is to say the other embryos wouldn’t have had the same?

      And there are many ways for parents to make their unborn child healthy (the simplest of all- being healthy and fit when planning a child),why such effort to choose that one gene? To say “yes we did something for our child,we gave him the proper version of one of its 21 thousands genes” ?

      Every little bit – every minor correction – helps.



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