ABC News reported that a major scientific breakthrough may one day allow women to screen their unborn children for 3,500 genetic disorders. The amniocentesis procedure currently used to diagnose disorders in babies is invasive for the mother, can result in a miscarriage, and only detects a handful of genetic disorders. In the groundbreaking new procedure, scientists can reconstruct the entire genetic code of an unborn baby using only DNA samples taken from the mother’s blood and the father’s saliva.
While the benefits of this research are obvious, there are four ethical arguments I can see being raised if genetic mapping ever becomes available to the general public.
1) Higher Rates of Abortion
Pre-knowledge of genetic disorders will likely coincide with higher rates of abortion, and pro-lifers' raising their pitchforks. Their argument will be the same: abortion is murder, life begins at conception, God has a plan for every individual fertilized egg. Though these justifications are widely contested, they will find backing in three more concrete, secular arguments.
2) The Burden of Knowing the Future
If a woman learns that her unborn child will be diagnosed with a late onset genetic disease, and she chooses to go through with her pregnancy, to what extent will the child’s life be affected by the knowledge of his or her impending disorder? If the onset of a person's particular genetic disorder will be at 20 years old, should that person even strive for higher education? If the onset will be at 35, should he or she hope to start a family? Whether a mother believes it is worth it to give her child that type of uncertain life would be entirely subjective, but there's no question that such a life would be filled with obstacles.
3) A Widening Social Gap
Currently, with the exception of some disorders that are common among individuals of particular ethnicities, most genetic diseases don't discriminate between victims. However, if the genetic mapping of fetuses becomes a real medical option, the procedure will remain very expensive, and only wealthy pregnant women will have to decide whether to abort fetuses that they might have otherwise brought to term. As that decision could lead to more abortions than full-term pregnancies, genetic diseases may slowly be weeded out of the upper social classes. Other than the self-evident moral implications of a man-made process of natural selection, higher occurrences of genetic disease among the poor would amount to even more societal issues in terms of health care, disability discrimination, and the social gap.
4) A Slippery Slope
While we’re still a few years away from manufacturing genetically ideal human beings, the same technology that enables scientists to screen for genetic disorders may encourage other forms of selective abortion. Though it sounds like the workings of a science fiction novel, the notion that fetal genetic mapping could lead to the abortion of fetuses with socially undesirable traits is not entirely unimaginable.