Moral Choice

We live in a difficult moral age. Questions arise that our forebears had no idea of, let answers to. One came up that’s been tugging at my mind. The question is this, currently, for in vitro fertilisation, embryos are allowed to be scanned for certain childhood congenital disorders. Perhaps the best example is down’s syndrome. This can know be fairly accurately identified, and such embryos rejected. The question now is, science has advanced to the point where other, more adult, disorders can be identified.

Here the case presented was identifying a genetic predisposition to breast cancer. The question being, if it can be identified, should it? The media spectre of “designer babies” looms. What gets played up is the fear of parents selecting the attributes and strengths they want a child to have.

To my mind this is really very simple. We’ve already made the prime moral choice. By accepting that the process of in vitro fertilisation means that more embryos will be fertilised than will be used successfully, everything after that point is somewhat moot. The real question, which is pivotal in the whole abortion debate, is what rights do an embryo have? The Christian right believes that a fertilised embryo has been quickened by god with a soul, and therefore a human life not to be extinguished. Oddly enough, this goes back to my first point. The bible mentions nothing about this, abortion really doesn’t have a single line devoted to it. All else is interpretation.

So, what should the measure be? In my youth I came across a small fact that still shapes my thinking. At around the 20th week, an embryo begins to have traceable alpha waves in its brain. Alpha waves are an accepted signal of consciousness. Only the higher life forms exhibit them. To me, that is the spark point, the feather on the scales that tips an embryo from animal to human. Before that, it is potential, after that it is conscious, even if in only the most rudimentary form. It is the only objective measure I can find that we can use.

Back to the question then, should we allow embryos to be scanned for genetic or congenital disorders? My only answer can be use, indeed the only moral answer can be yes. If the decision has been made that some embryos will be used, and some discarded, then we have an obligation to ensure the most fit embryos are chosen.

Of course disabled or ill children can love and be loved, of course they can add to the whole that is the human condition. I do not question that, but that does not mean that when we have a choice to not allow their suffering to come into being, we should not take it. If you can say that this embryo has a reasonable chance at illness or suffering, and this one has a much reduced chance, what other choice can you make?

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