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Thursday November 30, 2000

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Genetic screening is a right

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By Cory Spiller

Understanding the scientific complexities of the Human Genome Project and the possibilities of genetic screening are bewildering for most us. However, the ethical questions are much easier to wrestle with. Genetically altered babies have been a science fiction dream - and nightmare - for decades. Aldous Huxley thought of it in the 1940's, and, more recently, the film Gattica explored the social consequences of genetically engineered people. What was science fiction is now very real, and although the thought of playing with genetics seems inappropriate to some and disgusting to others, individuals have a right to use genetic screening at their discretion.

Genetic screening would allow parents to save their children from life threatening diseases such as Down Syndrome, Multiple Sclerosis and Sickle Cell Anemia. However, the controversy becomes more heated with the ability to isolate a genetic predisposition for intelligence, personality or, possibly, sexuality. The debate hits boiling point when parents could possibly choose the sex and appearance of their children.

In simple terms, the process would involve fertilizing multiple eggs and picking the embryos with the genetic characteristics that the parent prefers - in essence, genetic screening gives you the ability order a baby, as you would a hamburger: "I'll have it medium rare, with blue eyes and blond hair, no pickles or tomatoes and a predisposition to athletics. The undesirable embryos would be thrown in the waste bucket, and that may be problematic for some people. However, abortion is legal. Parents already have the right to end their pregnancy for whatever reason they choose. So, why not according to whether or not their child will live a healthy life?

Genetic screening for disease is a must. In the future, allowing your child to be born with diseases that could have been discovered before conception will be considered negligent. We have every right to protect our children. Some would argue that a down syndrome child, or a child with MS, has every right to live. They scream, "You can't say one life is worth more than another!" True, but that is not what is being debated. The debate is for the parents. The quality of life your child leads will have profound effects on the quality of your life as a parent.

If you believe that raising and loving a handicapped or chronically ill child will be just as, or even more, rewarding as raising a healthy child, then genetic screening will allow you to isolate those genes to ensure that your child will be handicapped. Of course, the above statement is absurd, but ignoring the ability to save your child from genetic diseases is just as absurd.

Hypothetically, ten years from now, you and your partner conceive a child. Your first child died prematurely of a rare genetic disease, so you work with a genetic specialist and choose an embryo that is free of the diseased genes. The doctor informs you that the child will live but will most likely be unusually short. You don't want to raise a circus midget, so you find an embryo that is both disease free and with a predisposition for average height. But what's to stop you from giving it beautiful green eyes, pimple-free skin and a nice, round ass?

If you have decided that the idea of genetic screening thoroughly repulses you and that those who choose to employ the technology are playing God, than don't do it. However, let those who decide that they want to save their children from needless suffering have the chance. Genetic screening is a freedom like any other, and it must be protected.

Cory Spiller is a history and creative writing senior. He can be reached at