In Part 1, I was talking about what seemed to me to be a remarkably high proportion of women who find out that their baby has Down’s syndrome and decide to abort the pregnancy.

From what I had read (admittedly not much), Down’s syndrome is not generally associated with life-threatening defects and, while it would usually have some impact on long term health and quality of life, this is not normally anywhere near so significant that you could say the life in question is not worth having. That so many women faced with the knowledge that their baby had Down’s (59 out of 62) chose to abort the foetus – and that so many women faced with the knowledge that their baby might realistically have the syndrome (62 out of 71) chose to have risky diagnostic tests – seemed to me to be troubling. It also seems to me to exemplify a more general trend, an unhealthy, and even an absurd, preoccupation with “perfection”.

I say that this preoccupation with perfection is absurd because it is based on a concept of perfection that itself makes no sense. “Perfect” seems to mean “like me, you know, NORMAL”. If the baby will be blind, or deaf, or if one of its legs will be shorter than the other, or if it will be someone who develops and learns differently – then it is defective. But if it will have allergies, or an inherited predisposition to breast cancer, or if it will struggle to maintain a healthy weight, and not be much good at sports, then it’s fine.

These features are examples only – I suppose that other people might think of other features as defective or not-defective. But who set these standards? Who is the judge? I don’t know. I just know it wasn’t me. And it wasn’t you. But you and I would have been pressured to submit to them if our unborn children had failed to comply and the doctor had suggested abortion. It is absurd that my decision about my child should be influenced by standards of perfection / defectiveness that I didn’t set and that don’t even make sense to me.

And if it is OK to abort a child just because it is “defective” according to these standards, why should it not be OK to abort a child based on other standards? No, that one is a boy and we wanted a girl. That one does not look enough like its father. No, we wanted one with a gene for [insert requirement here].

Where do you draw the line? When does acceptable screening become the creation of designer babies, the practice of eugenics? Who should draw up the standards of which foetus is worth keeping and which can fairly be terminated? What should be the requirements for being allowed to survive to term without your mother being pressured to terminate?

These questions are chilling. They are what make the preoccupation with perfection unhealthy as well as absurd.

Why chilling?

To me, there are two central problems with this slide towards designer babies, quite apart from the problem of setting the standard requirements for “perfection”.

The first is merely practical – given how little we know about genetics and generally about the workings of the human body (and we think we know so much!) it would be foolish and dangerous to start tinkering with it. It would be like trying to speed up human evolution, steering it in the direction that scientists and future parents think they want to go. But what if, unknown to those at the wheel, there is a great big spiky rock just around the corner, and you are steering right at it? What if those human traits you were about to breed out of the species, on the grounds that you think they are defects, turn out to be incredibly valuable for some hitherto unsuspected reason? What if, by tinkering with the very stuff of life, you accidentally mucked up something fundamental? Would you just say, Oops!?

Another objection is to my mind even more compelling. It is that this kind of screening can muck up the very thing that is so amazing, beautiful and life-affirming about parenthood: unconditional love.

“I want a baby, and I will love it, but I only want it if it will [have brown eyes / be a girl / serve as a bone marrow donor to my first child / insert requirement here].”

How would it feel to be a child who was only wanted because it fit the criteria? Would there not be a place inside you, however small, that wondered whether your parents really loved you for you or only for your appearance, your state of health? Would you not resent somehow that they made these conditions for your existence, and resent that you have to continue fulfilling them in order to keep their love? Would a tiny part of you not fear what would happen if things were different? What if you didn’t want to keep donating your bodily tissues?

How would it feel to be a child who was supposed to fit the criteria, but doesn’t?

(A screening slip-up means the child has the wrong colouring, or the wrong sex. The baby has the right kind of bone marrow but cannot be a donor because it is not itself strong enough to undergo donation procedures. The baby has no congenital learning difficulties, but goes on to develop some other condition, or suffer some form of brain damage, which mean that it becomes learning-disabled after all. The child looks just like Mummy, but in an accident its face becomes damaged and ugly. The child looks just like Daddy, but then Daddy runs off with a secretary and suddenly Mummy can’t stand the resemblance any more.)

Would you not feel that you had let your parents down somehow? Would there not be a place inside you, however small, that wondered whether they can still love you, and not be disappointed in you, now that you don’t fit the requirements? Would you wonder, perhaps, whether you will ever find anyone who loves you just for you? Would you wonder whether you even deserve to be loved, just for yourself? Is it not bad enough to feel that you are a burden to your parents, without the added guilt of knowing that they expected perfection?

The unconditional love of a parent, particularly a mother, is the first and most affirming love that we receive. It is a beautiful, irreplaceable, eternal gift. And I think it is damaged when as a parent you allow conditionality to creep in by auditioning your embryos.

This is not to say that it is never justifiable to terminate a pregnancy where the foetus has some true defect. But we need to be careful what we consider to be a defect, and how serious a defect it would need to be before termination becomes an ethical choice.

Presently, where Down’s syndrome is routinely considered to be that serious a defect, I think we have got the balance wrong.

(I’ve been thinking a lot about how this fits in with my pro-choice stance. That is for another post. Perhaps Part 3!)

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