The genes of our nature

AS we get older, we realize we begin to look more and more like our parents. This recognition comes to us in a flash, and usually we pay it no heed. In ironic resignation, we accept the annoying mannerisms, the volatile temper, and even the illnesses as part of the genetic package that our ancestors bequeathed to us.  Sometimes, though, it makes us wonder how we would have turned out if we did not have our parents’ genes.

My mother used to tell me that she had a couple of suitors when she was young. Yet it was my father she chose. Later in life, I would have a chance to meet the children of the men she did not choose. I could have been them, or they could have been me. The idea never fails to amuse me. I know I would not have picked a different set of parents if it were possible. But, the same thought makes me a keen observer of the disorders that afflicted my parents. Chronic asthma, skin allergies, and cancer besieged my father’s side. Aneurysms and cancer troubled my mother’s side. Modern medicine says many of these are possibly genetic. This awareness can make you miserable. You can spend your life worrying when those unwanted genetic predispositions will finally kick in.

In recent years, big strides have been made in the cutting-edge field of embryonic screening. It is now possible to detect the presence of genetic disorders at a very early stage of embryonic formation. Much of the advance has come from the related field of assisted fertilization. This is the field that has given us in-vitro fertilization, where the egg of the human female is fertilized by a man’s sperm on a petri dish, and then implanted in the uterus. This procedure has helped countless childless couples have children of their own.

But beyond merely making fertilization possible outside the body, the technology has spawned other procedures that are lumped under the term “pre-implantation genetic diagnosis” (PGD). Before being implanted in the uterus, an embryo may be examined for signs of genetic diseases or defects.

Assisted fertilization is now allowed or tolerated in many countries, but legal and moral obstacles continue to stand in the way of PGD. Law 40 was passed in Catholic Italy in 2004 expressly prohibiting PGD, the freezing of human embryos, and their use for research. But in 2009, the Italian Supreme Court permitted the limited use of PGD in cases involving infertile couples.

The Italian couple Rosetta Costa and Walter Pavan were fertile and they wanted a child. Their problem is that both are carriers of cystic fibrosis. They applied for PGD so they could screen their embryo for genes that may carry this disorder. But since they were not infertile, they did not qualify for the procedure under Italian law. They sued their government before the European Court of Human Rights for infringing on their private and family life. Last August, the European Court granted their appeal, prompting Italy to reopen the case.

In Britain, the couple Tom and Paula Lichy, who are both deaf, asked to be allowed to get help through PGD to “create” a deaf child. This request was resolutely opposed by people who see the procedure as ethically justifiable only by medical necessity. The situation is particularly alarming to those who fear that the procedure, if not strictly regulated, may lead to the creation of “designer babies”—human beings formed from embryos whose genes have been meticulously selected in order to produce preordained traits and qualities. The issue has revived the old debate on eugenics—the idea that the human species may be improved through the methodical selection of mates endowed with favored hereditary traits.

The German thinker Jürgen Habermas thinks that the technology is already there, and it is just a matter of time before we begin to see genetically designed individuals in our midst. His book, “The future of human nature,” is a meditation on the philosophical and psychological issues that a genetically enhanced person may confront in the course of his/her life.

We all have seen how parents can be so obsessed with shaping the fate of their children that, apart from determining the best schools and courses for them, they may also choose their friends, and subject them to intense conditioning to bring out an imagined finished product. Still, such forms of intervention are limited to the available tools of socialization. As they grow up, the children may have the opportunity to critically assess the effects of their programmed upbringing, and do something to reverse them if they find them unacceptable.

There is no such opportunity, says Habermas, for the child who, as an embryo, had undergone genetic determination at the behest of his parents. He would be in no position to reverse or undo the intention of the genetic programmer. He would be barred “from the spontaneous self-perception of being the undivided author of his own life.” If, let us say, he felt any inclination to music, he might reject it in the thought that this is not his real self but his parents’ genetic preference at work. He may experience an aspect of his being as an alien implant that has its own separate life, thus impairing his moral status as a person who could be held accountable for his actions.

Habermas’ position is certainly not the final word on these fascinating issues. This complex debate continues to rage at a very high level in the modern world, which makes the whole controversy about contraceptives in our society so archaic in comparison.

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