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Choices we might not want to make


Recently a short document titled “Two Ethical Questions” was sent to my e-mail box. I might have chalked this missive up, after reading it, as a historically inaccurate and therefore ineffective canard from a fringe group on the antiabortion front.

When it arrived, though, I was working on the series of articles on genetic engineering that appeared in the last issue of NCR. Forced to ponder the potential effects of genetic profiling and genetic manipulation to produce “designer children” -- children genetically bred to conform to social and parental proclivities -- I found these “ethical questions” provocative. I was intrigued, too, because they came to me via my daughter, having obviously made the rounds of managers at the major St. Louis corporation where she works.

Noteworthy, I thought, that career-oriented 30-somethings were finding this document absorbing enough to pass around.

Its contents follow:

“First Ethical Question (heavily edited to correct historical inaccuracies): A woman is pregnant for the third time. Her first two children died in infancy. Of her six children yet to be born, three more will die very young. Of the three who will survive, one will be victimized by a parasitical alcoholic father, do very poorly in school, and become deaf and mentally tormented in early adulthood. Another will become a nearly intolerable burden to a sibling. The woman herself, after bearing all these children, will become deeply unhappy, describing life as ‘a chain of sorrows.’ Given this foreknowledge, should this woman end her pregnancy?

“Second question: Choose which of the following three candidates you would choose if you had the opportunity to vote for a world leader:

“Candidate A: Hangs out with crooked politicians, consults with astrologers. Has had two mistresses. Chain-smokes, drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.

“Candidate B: Was twice kicked out of office. Sleeps until noon. Used opium in college. Drinks a quart of whiskey every evening.

“Candidate C: Is a decorated war hero and a vegetarian who doesn’t smoke, drinks an occasional beer and hasn’t had any extramarital affairs.

“Make your own selection before reading on to find out the identities of the three options.

“Candidate A is Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Candidate B is Winston Churchill.

“Candidate C is Adolph Hitler.

“As for the abortion question, if you said yes (and chances are, you did not), you just killed Beethoven.”

The question about whom to vote for challenges our tendency to forget that great evil often comes cloaked in conventional morality, or conversely, that an adulterer and murderer, David, was God’s own choice for a king.

The second question is the one to puzzle over. In the not-too-distant future, parents will possess, when confronted with only a few cells, a wealth of information about the gifts and problems their potential offspring are likely to have. Scientists tell us parents may then be able to select among a range of embryos, rejecting those with defective genes.

Given such options, would loving parents knowingly choose to nurture into life an embryo whose genetic tendencies included both musical genius and deafness -- a sure recipe for torment?

While pondering what a genetically ideal future might mean for creativity and genius, I happened into a used bookstore in Kansas City, where I found a book called Private Lives: Curious Facts about the Famous and Infamous by Mark Bryant. A bit of thumbing soon provided a list of numerous historic luminaries who might not have gotten the genetic nod.

Charlotte Bronte? Very frail as a child. Sir Isaac Newton? Small, weak, insane for 18 months after a nervous breakdown in 1673. Vincent van Gogh? A host of health-related problems, not least of which were epilepsy and schizophrenia. Virginia Woolf? Mentally unstable, her death by drowning the culmination of a string of suicide attempts. Thomas Edison? Deaf as a child.

Joseph Stalin, on the other hand, whose policies as head of the Soviet Union ultimately led to the deaths of millions, was fit and healthy most of his life. So was Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, with the exception of a case of venereal disease, presumably preventable, and an ulcer.

Had parents had the opportunity to make health-based selections before each of those people was born, whom do you think would have been selected for life? Or if, say, we had decided to alter Bronte’s genes to produce a more vibrant child, would she have produced her great art?

Even apart from the morality of giving ourselves the right to make such decisions, shouldn’t we be concerned about all that genes alone don’t tell us, about all that we cannot possibly know about the mystery of unfolding life?

Alternatively, perhaps in a more distant future, embryos could be engineered to our genetic design.

When children come to be viewed less as a gift and more as a product to be designed, will expressions of the human spirit range as widely? Or will we, having taken the risk out of breeding also eliminate genetically problematic instances of human genius, whether it happens by accident, or more benignly, through the caution that will almost inevitably guide our choices? Should we be concerned, perhaps, about the poverty of our individual or collective imagination?

Think of all the generations through history that have been enriched by the creative output of adults who almost certainly would not have made the genetic cut. What are the chances, really, that in some yet-to-be-determined future, we will have the wisdom, even if we had the knowledge, to get it right?

The “ethical question” about Beethoven is worth pondering when we become subject to subtle persuasions that engineering a child might somehow be better than rolling the genetic dice.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR special projects editor.

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999