Saviour siblings controversy shows questionable logic

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Idon’t get it. Couples who suspect they may produce a child with a genetic mutation can use technology to create embryos for the express purpose of having them all carefully screened for the slightest defects in their biological machinery. If abnormalities are present, the embryo is destroyed.

If they are already pregnant, they can undergo a search and destroy technique to detect genetic diseases in utero. In more than 80 per cent of cases in which a problem is detected, the unborn child is immediately aborted. That rises to more than 90 per cent with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, and to almost 100 per cent for potentially lethal diseases like anencephaly.

Surprising? Maybe. But it’s no big deal since we give women the unfettered reproductive freedom to abort their babies simply because they are inconvenient.

We’ve also given fertility clinics license to jump through all sorts of ethical hoops just to give an infertile couple a “biological” child.

So why are we suddenly having ethical qualms about two British Columbian parents who want to create a child to provide stem cells that could save their eight-year-old son’s life?

The ethical microscope is focused on Vancouver couple Mike and Pam Obadia and their eight-year-old son Benjamin who has suffered from leukemia for five years. A bone-marrow transplant could help him, but a two-year search has been futile in finding a compatible donor.

Thus, Benjamin has endured 300 courses of chemotherapy, 285 needles, 35 spinal taps, 16 blood transfusions and 13 bone-marrow biopsies. His website (www.mobadia.ca) documents his journey and updates the numbers of these medical procedures. It only takes a quick look to be overwhelmed by compassion and an emotional desire to help him.

As any parent would understand, the Obadia’s are desperate to create a “saviour sibling” to provide genetic material (in this case, stem cells from the umbilical cord) to treat Benjamin’s illness.

But suddenly doctors at Children’s and Women’s Hospital in Vancouver have ethical and moral concerns. It seems that creating a life to potentially save another life is too edgy for an institution that has no qualms about doing late-term abortions for genetic indications or early-term abortions for any reason. As a result, the couple must now travel to Chicago to undergo the procedure, at a potential cost of $30,000.

Hence, the ethical dialogue is now underway. Most concerns have long been debated in relation to either genetics or reproductive technology. But that debate is exacerbated when these technologies are combined (as in this case) to create the new science of reprogenetics.

The first concern is that Mrs. Obadia is 47 (i.e. biologically ancient), so chances are extremely small that she will conceive naturally. Her age may even keep her from conceiving via assisted reproductive technologies.

A second concern revolves around the idea of creating a child for the purpose of being used in an experimental procedure or, as is commonly said, for “spare parts.” No matter how noble the end goal may be or how much the child is ultimately loved, the human dignity of the child is still diminished when created for a utilitarian purpose. Worse, once we agree to create babies to use their cells, there’s not much stopping us from creating children to use their organs

That said, if the Obadia’s are successful, I have little doubt that they will have unconditional love for their child — no matter what happens.

The third — and biggest — controversy concerns the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to screen the embryos. Once multiple embryos are created via in vitro fertilization, the key to success is for PGD to determine which embryos are an exact match for Ben’s tissue type; they are then implanted in the womb. When the child is born, the stem cells in the umbilical cord are harvested for transplant to Ben.

This is a twist on the normal PGD procedure that screens embryos for unwanted genetic mutations, and imperfect embryos are then discarded or used for research.

The new use of PGD appears to be preferable from a moral standpoint, but both techniques still culture the idea that embryos can be picked and chosen like vegetables at a supermarket, and the losers are subject to suspended life in a freezer, or death via experimentation or the garbage disposal.

Yet it now appears that, in this case at least, the new PGD procedure is the big ethical problem because it takes a step toward the creation of ‘designer babies’ where parents select FOR desired traits.

Apparently, the medical establishment is reluctant to move down that road to perfection while it is so busy destroying the imperfect.

I don’t support aborting unborn children (for any reason) or the wholesale creation and selection of embryos to get one perfect child.

But the logical inconsistencies in this case are laughable.

We live in a society where some view the embryo as a life that can save a life, while others view the embryo as a disposable bit of tissue.

Frankly, I’m not sure that a society that has granted women the “right” of absolute reproductive freedom can logically keep the lid on saviour siblings much longer.

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