The ethical and social implications of genetic screening

It was only in 1953 that Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of the DNA molecule. Since then genetic research has moved faster than anyone could have anticipated. Recent advances in technology have prompted the setting up of a collaborative project in which scientists from all the world share information on our genetic make-up. The ultimate aim is to completely map the human genome. Already 10,000 genes have been pin pointed and the function is known of almost 4,000 of these.

At the current rate of advancement it wont be long before all genes and their function have been discovered. Not only will this allow us to discover more about ourselves and how genes work but it will also allow us to spot problems in the genetic makeup. This includes inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis or Down’s syndrome and diseases which people are made more vunerable to by an amalgamation of faulty genes, such as cancer. Already we take for granted pre-natal screening, in which genes are analysed from a sample of anionic fluid, and in many cases foetuses with abnormal genes are aborted.

Could knowledge of more genes, and therefore increasing the likelihood of spotting a faulty or abnormal gene, lead to an increase in abortion rate? Of course, some people believe the terminations would be justified. Maybe the termination would be better for the parties involved. It would make life easier for the parents as life would surely be difficult with a disabled child and perhaps, awful it may sound, it may be better for the child. But what does this say about people with inherited disabilities? Does this suggest that these people don’t deserve the same chance in life, that they are less than other ‘healthy’ folk?

Or is it wrong to assume that parents would not care for their child, their creation, disabled or not? It’s also false to assume that all those people with disabilities lead lives filled with sadness and misery. Many live full, fun lived lives. People with Down’s syndrome, for example, are renowned for their loving nature and good humour. There is also scope for problems with genetic screening after birth. Take Huntingdon’s Chorea for instance. There is no cure or even treatment available and it seems clear that a potential carrier has the right to choose not to take the test.

But what if they already have children and one of them wants to know if they carry the disease? If the child takes the test and the result is positive that confirms that not only will they one day develop the disease but also that the parent they inherited it from will too. So which right should prevail? The right to know or the right not to know? 1 in 25 people of the population of this country carry the gene causing cystic fibrosis. Programmes to screen for these people are being trailed both here and in the US. The test itself is very simple, being carried out on a mouthwash sample.

But the results could have far reaching implementations. Couples who are both carriers have a 1 in 4 chance of having a baby with cystic fibrosis. Is it right for them to inflict this on an unborn child or is it right for the foetus to be aborted? However techniques are being pioneered to take away at least some of the agony of this decision. Doctors at Hammersmith hospital in London are working on a technique to screen 8-cell embryos. After test tube fertilisation one or two cells are removed from the embryos and screened for defective genes.

Then only embryos with no apparent genetic defect are implanted into the womb to develop into normal healthy babies. However there are even ethical problems with this method. Some people are whole-heartedly again test tube fertilisation and some people may even say that the embryo constitutes life- even at the 8-cell stage. However, is it right to screen for genetic defects? Is it right to play God and forecast peoples’ lives before they are even breathing on their own. Perhaps some things are best left chance, or to fate? Post-natal screening also gives rise to other issues. The main one being discrimination.

A survey recently carries out in Britain by the disability charity Radar found that “some 90% of disabled people feared that the growing emphasis on genetics would lead to further discrimination. ” With only some further advancements doctors could provide a report on the very basis of everyone’s being- their genes. This could highlight any risks of developing illnesses, passing on illnesses or becoming disabled. This information could then be used by ruthless companies and prevent the sale of or increase the cost of life insurance, for example. Employers may also discriminate against applicants with a ‘poor genetic rating’.

Although far fetched this screening could also lead to a class system based on people’s genetic code. This could cause situations in which the ‘genetically’ impure are eradicated or sterilised (much like WWII Germany) to create a ‘better’ society. Although there are many problems and ethical issues associated with genetic testing and screening a lot of good can come of these techniques. However, now we have the knowledge and the technology we need to learn how to best use to benefit every individual member of the human race- a mammoth task for the 21st century!