In Utero Life Decisions
Advances in prenatal testing, which can now detect a broad array of genetic issues, may relieve uncertainty but they also raise serious ethical questions, writes Nicky Bryson. What happens when science finally unlocks the ‘gay gene’?
‘Life is precious’. It wouldn’t be such a recognisable cliché if it weren’t something we humans fervently believed. Increasingly, though, I find myself wondering how we make the determination of whose life is precious and whose would be more worthwhile with a little help.
I just read yet another article on in utero medical intervention and I find myself torn in two directions. This piece focused on controversial treatment for fetuses at risk of being born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia. The condition manifests in a number of ways but the most disturbing for the parents who seek this treatment (and the doctors who suggest it) is the possibility of girls being born with genitals that are mascunalised; in particular, vaginas that resemble the closed pouch of a scrotum or an enlarged clitoris that looks like a penis.
Questions are now being asked about the effectiveness and long-term side effects of the pre-natal drug used to treat this condition. I’ll leave the medical debate to the experts but I am really concerned about how far we, as a human race, are willing to push the ethical boundaries of pre-natal solutions to the issues our children might suffer.
We can test for Down syndrome and while there is no pre-natal treatment, I would never judge anyone for the making the decision to terminate. However, had my mother made that decision, I would never have grown up with a brother who just happens to be the most wonderful man on the planet. What if a pre-natal fix had been available and my brother had been born ‘normal’? Would he still be the same man? Would we still love each other so fiercely? I wish I could ask him what he would want. I see him longing for things that the rest of us take for granted and I suspect that he would change his life if he could.
There has been a lot of talk lately about testing for the gay gene and it isn’t so hard to imagine how many babies would be terminated or ‘fixed’ when medical science leaps over that particular hurdle. I’m not just proud of my sexuality: I love it. I’m a very happy lesbian and I am horrified at the thought of being any different. However, I do have a physical disability that caused me much misery in my younger life. My right eye turns in and while it sounds like such a small thing, it was the focus of an endless stream of bullying when I was growing up. If you’d asked me how I felt about a pre-natal fix back then, I would have signed the papers and crawled right back into the womb.
Now I’m not so sure. All the troubles I suffered through then have made me who I am. I have compassion, I’m intelligent, I make friends easily and I’m an excellent writer. If I was given a magic wand to wave now, I look back over the entirety of my life so far and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m happy, you see, sometimes deliriously so. I am certain that every step I took led me here.
The thing is, I don’t speak for everyone. I’m just a lesbian with a wonky eye. I don’t know half the trauma my brother has gone through, I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with intersex genitalia, and I haven’t the faintest idea what drives gay people who wish to be straight. But I can’t help asking myself if we simply wave a magic wand over every baby, are we saying that life is only precious under certain narrow guidelines? Aren’t we taking away some of the life story that was destined to shape them?