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Thursday November 30, 2000

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Parallel issues, steep slopes

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By Dan Cassino

Earlier this month, in Minnesota, doctors saved the life of a 6-year old girl with a bone marrow disorder. Many doctors and ethicists are convinced that in saving this girl's life, we have begun down the slippery slope to distopia.

To save Molly Nash's life, her parents had another baby, one that had been genetically screened as an embryo to determine that he did not have Molly's disease and that he would serve as a tissue donor compatible to his older sister. Once the parents had found the embryo they wanted, they impregnated the mother with it, and, once the child was born, used the rich blood of the umbilical cord to repair her bone marrow. Weeks later, the process seems to have been a success, and both Molly and her little brother, Adam, are doing well. Molly is now perfectly healthy; there doesn't seem to be a downside. But, there is.

If we can screen an embryo to make certain that it doesn't have a disease, it is conceivable that we can screen it to make certain that it isn't short. Or a girl. Or stupid. Or gay. It is that level of control that has ethicists white-knuckling through every new development.

As these questions have only been raised by recent advances in science, most notably the completion of the Human Genome Project earlier this year, opinions are still out on how we should handle it. For better or worse, though, we have a precedent. The parallels between this debate and the abortion debate are clear and deep. Again, we must deal with the question of when the clump of cells inside a woman is a person. If it is a person, we certainly must consider its rights to not be changed. If it is simply a bunch of cells in a woman, as pro-choicers have always maintained, then the woman has the absolute right to screw with it however she likes.

Of course, few proponents of abortion-on-demand would be so quick to advocate genetic screening or manipulation of babies on demand. Though they hold a fundamentally indefensible position, the sentiment behind it is clear. An abortion leaves no evidence that there was a baby to begin with. Society must live with genetically screened and manipulated children for the whole of their enhanced life.

And so, this new debate will force everyone to re-evaluate our views on an issue that has long since become dogmatic for all of us. Certainly, such a re-evaluation cannot be bad - but the consequences for our society and morality will be profound.

Dan Cassino is a political science senior. He can be reached at