A research paper published last week by the University of Washington says that a DNA mapping could be done by testing the blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father. Through this technique it is possible to evaluate for over 3,500 different genetic abnormalities in an 18-week foetus. This could be rewarding for parents, if the mother carries a foetus with genetic mutations, to make a decision on termination of the pregnancy at a safer period, within the first trimester. Some genes will raise the odds that a child has the potential to get conditions like diabetes or some types of cancer in later years. This is, no doubt, an enormous advancement in medical technology, as bringing up a child with genetic disorders or mental retardation is hugely challenging for parents as well as for the child.
If this procedure becomes a routine part of prenatal testing how to manage the information and what use is made of it by the parents is what has to be controlled. A parent can use the information that the child would develop serious diseases in later years, to explore options of therapy and care. Also, there are many conditions that are a result of certain lifestyles. Lifestyle choices also could be planned as a result of such information.
Until last week, DNA scrutiny was done by pricking with a needle in the mother’s womb, which carried a risk of miscarriage. This was a restraining factor for mothers from non-risk groups. But the arrival of non-invasive prenatal diagnosis, a medical marvel, throws up quite a few other concerns. The low-cost and no-risk procedure may interest many more women to go for a blood test to diagnose a wider range of conditions.
How does one ensure a termination of pregnancy, if resorted to after one such test, is for medical reasons alone? Knowing our bias against the girl child, there is a high possibility that the procedure may be used for gender selective termination of pregnancy. A relatively simple blood test, as early as in the 9th week into pregnancy, could determine the gender of the child with 95 per cent accuracy, which may perhaps make termination of pregnancies that much easier. The already skewed gender (im)balance will worsen.
The colour of the skin, height, colour of hair, intelligence level, artistic acumen… the list is endless, for parents to decide if the child is ‘suitable’ to see the world. It may not be long before we queue up in front of the genetic laboratories with our ‘technical specifications’ of the babies. This is not a science fiction; this will be the reality in the near future.
Scientists are taking baby steps in this direction; and the day is not far off when aborting a foetus for its ‘imperfections’ will become the norm. Who has the right to make judgement about the physical characteristics and mental attributes of the unborn and decide the fate of the foetus? More and more Aldous Huxley’s visualisation of a Brave New World stares starkly in our face. Is that what we want?
Any technological advancement will have its pros and cons. Genetic engineering is not inherently evil. We cannot undermine vast benefits, primarily in medicine, it offers. But there is a risk of genetic selection being used in an unscrupulous way. The technology may take another three years to be ready for use and a few more years may follow before it becomes cost affordable. This breather will give us the chance to put in place regulations of its use for the advantage it can accrue and prevent its misuse. Strict regulations as in the case of sex-determination tests in India, which is criminalised since 1994 should be laid. Stringent guidelines should be formulated and followed in licensing a lab that uses this new diagnostic tool for testing foetal abnormalities. It should be restricted only to evaluate medical complications.