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Genetic Screening

One technology that has caused concern among many religious believers - and also among non-believers - is genetic screening. Many people fear that this technology will be used in inappropriate or even immoral ways, and that it will lead to unethical and inequitable situations. These fears are not without foundation. In the 1970's, when the gene for sickle cell anemia was identified, men who tested positive for the gene were barred from entry to the U.S. Air Force Academy. A 1996 survey showed that genetic discrimination in employment was on the rise. In one case a social worker was abruptly dismissed when her employer discovered she was at risk from developing Huntington's disease. In 1989 an extensive survey of US employers conducted by the Northwestern Life Insurance Company revealed that 15 percent planned to introduce genetic screening of prospective employees by the year 2000.

The prospect of widespread genetic screening also raises dilemmas about the value of human life. If, for example, fetuses could be tested for ALS (or motor neurone disease) - a severe wasting disease that usually sets in during early adulthood and usually kills patients within a few years - then would you want to abort a fetus with the relevant genes? Many people might do so. But if all such babies were aborted Stephen Hawking would not have been born. Hawking, who contracted ALS in his early twenties is a very unusual case of someone who has lived with the disease for over 30 years. But what about an illness like Tay Sachs disease? Children born with this genetic abnormality rarely live more than a few years and often go through extreme pain. Is such a life worth living? And what about fetuses with the genetic trait of an XX chromosome pair? Already these prospective children are being aborted in great numbers around the world. Again, there are no easy answers here. Science is taking us into new areas that are challenging us to confront complex and difficult ethical dilemmas. In discussions about how to deal with these challenges religious people can also be involved.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Margaret Wertheim

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