Embryo selection worries

A hot topic in The Netherlands at the moment is embryo selection. This is the use of a technology to detect “genetic defects” in embryos in a very early stage of development. This could then lead to destroying those “defect” embryos before implanting.

The discussion has escalated to the political arena, because the state secretary responsible for legislation in public health, Bussemaker, has made some peculiar moves in the past few weeks: first she accepted the use of this technology, especially for the detection of genetic characteristics that could lead to breast cancer, then she withdrew that.
One Dutch hospital has already announced they would continue with the practice in spite of the withdrawn legislation, because they “take their responsibility toward the unborn child”. Another hospital has announced they would use this technology for embryos especially suspect of serious other genetic defects (other than breast cancer that is).

The discussion is especially interesting, because it reveals many psychological traits in modern society, with severe implications in philosophical and ethical areas.

So it seems we are more and more able to detect genetic deficiencies.

First: I challenge the scientific foundation of that claim. True, we know some genetic correlations with diseases like breast cancer and cystic fibrosis. These correlations are, I wager, purely statistical. But I also have serious doubts whether the correlation is valid in the other direction: does the presence of these signatures lead to these diseases? The human genome, or any genome for that matter, is such a complex thing in itself, that making any statement implying we “understand” anything about it is grossly misleading, and certainly not scientifically sound.

Second: the technology is applied in a very early stage of embryo development. Specifically, one cell is removed from the embryo at a stage where the embryo has only eight cells. This is anathema to me, but another aspect of biology we know so little about is simply shoveled under the carpet. What do we know about the early development of the embryo, and the effects in the person, both mentally and physically? Almost nothing. There is a plethora of publications in the several areas that at least hint at such effects.

  1. Piaget’s theory of cognitive development
  2. Kohlberg’s stages of moral development
  3. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  4. Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development
  5. Jane Loevinger’s stages of ego development
  6. Lietaert Peerbolte – His exceptional book called Psychocybernetics.

Third: there is a very interesting association with “suffering”. The medical discipline is supposed to be a discipline based on science, with the express purpose of treating human beings to alleviate “suffering”. Usually associated with the physical body, it sometimes feels like doctors assume the role of the creator, with godlike powers like the power to heal.

We had a wise village doctor who used to say: “I cannot cure you, you have to do that yourself. I only hope to provide some help.”

What do we know about suffering? Who are we to decide that a person born and living with a genetic defect, is “suffering” in an “unacceptable” way? What about persons who are living now, adults with defects? Should they “never have been born”? Of course this is not what is meant. Or is it? I am not sure. We have become so afraid of the body, of our physical existence, that we are waging a war against its unpredictability, its irrationality. While those traits are the very roots of life and complex systems of which our bodies (and minds!) are an inseparable part.

The entire discussion, as could be expected of one played out in the political arena, is a gross simplification of an issue of such depth.

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