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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

“ Honey, I screened the kid...! ”

I don’t want to get into ethical debate surrounding Eugenics. If it’s bad, let’s discard. But for the moment, I purely view it as a technology for race improvement and hence squarely fitting within the object framework of this blog – which is to identify hot ideas for VCs to back.

Thanks to advancement in technology, Parents undergoing In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF) can now choose embryos based on their genetic risk of cancer and Alzheimer's. It’s called Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) : genetic testing carried out after IVF but before a fetus is returned to its mother's womb. The number of testing options is rapidly growing as scientists discover genetic variants linked to myriad health problems, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.

In India, we can’t leave the situation too open since indiscriminate sex determination with a male bias has resulted in skewed male : female ratios. In some northern states like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the ratio of one female to five males is so acute that there aren’t enough girls to be married to. This is a direct result of family backed, socially supported interventions in encouraging survival of male children only. But these question the very morality, character and individual conscience of the wrongdoer ( consenting parent ) and the abettor ( the clinician / mid-wife ). Not much can be done thro legislative or policy intervention which is too difficult to enforce anyway. We have religious controversy over embryos and a notion of reproductive freedom that is probably the strongest in the world.

I think that should not be a setback for technology coming to the aid of better healthcare or pain relief. Like in the U.K, we can have one centralized authority that decides on policy, and often these decisions are based on a process of public consultation, so it is actually the outcome of a democratic process, a fallout of political consensus.

One of the biggest fears with PGD is that parents will want to select embryos that are genetically predisposed to being superb athletes or good at math. When you get to enhancement selection, such as choosing physical traits or personality traits, there's this tension between the fear of eugenics on one hand and reproductive freedom on the other.

Procreative beneficence, the responsibility to benefit future children as much as we can is also our ethical responsibility. If you can bring a child into this world with better genetic equipment, it is our ethical obligation to do so, just like providing medical care.

Would this kind of testing modify our relationship with children….? Until now we saw them as gifts. What we got was what we got. Once we try to control their identities, we'll see them as commodities, a product that should meet a certain standard. If you bought genetic equipment to have an athlete, will you be upset if you get a musician ?

This argument is supported by a lot of social change we see anyway. We're hyper-parenting, pushing our children very hard. We send them to the best schools and a lot of extracurricular activities, and we expect perfection. Once we can use genetic tools, it will just go out of control.

I suspect if we ever regulate anything in this country, it might be these uses. For example, lately we've seen a lot of literature about the God gene, the notion [that] there is genetic basis to faith or spirituality. If we ever get to the point where we can influence such complex traits, public outcry will be such that we might be able to regulate against certain uses.

What remains is whether biologically altering an embryo is any different than socially altering a child. But that depends on what you think about genes and the environment--the nature-nurture debate. I personally think that although there are significant differences between educationally and genetically shaping the identities of children, in many ways they are similar. I'm a strong believer in genetics, but you can never reduce human talent to genetics.

You think it’s a hot idea to back…?


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