Letting the genetic genie out of the bottle

Letting the genetic genie out of the bottle

Recent discussions of so-called ‘three parent babies’ prompts Mike Oliver to warn us to learn the lessons of history and guard against the relentless and potentially menacing march of science.

The UK is likely to become the first country to allow the creation of babies from three people. Following a free vote in the House of Commons and a relatively unchallenged passage through the House of Lords genetically engineered babies are now not just a future possibility but a current reality.

This recent decision seems to have been almost universally welcomed as an example of the ongoing march of scientific progress. Anyone who has questioned it has been dismissed as a religious fanatic or a member of the pro-life lobby. For the record I am neither.

Even the heir to the throne, who has been remarkably vociferous about the dangers of genetically modified vegetables, has been ominously silent about the dangers of genetically modified people.

We shouldn’t be too surprised about this as many prominent people in the twentieth century were also prominent in the Eugenics Society. One MP in the 1930s even proclaimed that it was necessary “to stop the reproduction of those who are in every way a burden to their parents, a misery to themselves and a menace to the social life of the community”. While no-one would openly espouse such views today, the sentiment underlying the offensive language still exists.

The excesses of Nazi eugenics may have raised questions about where the science was leading us but the sentiment underpinning it remains alive and well today. While we may have challenged old stereotypes about us, many people still see us as burdens and tragic victims living miserable lives. These are dangerous times to be viewed like this as the global economy remains in recession and hate crimes is on the rise against us.

As disabled people we should be concerned and even alarmed about the lack of real debate on where genetic technology is leading us. As it becomes increasingly more sophisticated, we face the possibility that we will be able to eliminate more and more medical conditions and impairments. But who will decide which conditions and what will these decisions say about those people already living with these conditions?

When these questions have been raised, we have been told not to worry because potential parents will be given the choice about whether to make use of the technology or not. While this may be true for now, we have no way of knowing what pressures will be applied on prospective parents in the future.

Nor do the feelings of those currently living with impairments that can be eliminated in the future seem to have been considered. If genetic science is to continue it must take into account the effects it will have on the lives of those already living with such conditions and not assume that everyone wants to be cured or eradicated.

Already we have seen the withdrawal of benefits and services to some disabled people and their families and the rise of disability hate crime. Can we, in the future really guarantee the safety of those who didn’t need to be born and can we be sure that the force of the law won’t be used to prevent prospective parents from giving birth to impaired children? Recently we have seen leading politicians raising questions about whether benefits should be withdrawn from those with conditions that are seen as self-inflicted. Will parents who choose to have impaired children face this threat in the future?

It is not just disabled people who should be concerned about the future but everyone because future of the human race is at stake. It is impossible to know who might be genetically engineered out of existence once the use of this genetic technology becomes routine. To give one current example, had it been available a hundred years ago Stephen Hawking might not exist so there would have been no ‘A Brief History Of Time’ or ‘The Theory Of Everything’.

There are many more similar examples and a quick tour through human history will show that many important scientists, engineers, artists, philosophers and the like were driven by a desire to overcome their own medical conditions and impairments. The effects of such engineering may well be unknowable but we can be sure that they will certainly harm rather than enhance the development of human culture and slow the rate of social progress.

Now I’m neither a religious fanatic nor a pro-lifer but I am concerned that the issues we are dealing with are more complex than they have been portrayed so far and that we should proceed with much more caution than we appear to be doing at present. We should be concerned not just for disabled people in particular but the human race in general.

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