But is there an advantage here for children?
A “blood feud” is brewing over competing new technologies designed to give parents a “powerful tool for gleaning information about their unborn offspring.”
Writing in the 28 June 2012 issue of Nature, Erika Check Hayden reports on a court struggle between companies vying to win the advantage in fetal blood testing (“Fetal tests spur legal battle”). Lawsuits alleging and denying patent infringement are in the District Court of Northern California and could determine which company or companies will have the pole position in the race to market their tests to eager parents.
The tests offer certain advantages to parents. By testing a pregnant mother’s blood labs are able to “spot genetic abnormalities, such as those that cause Down’s syndrome, as early as ten weeks after conception – several weeks sooner than tests already in use.” One new test is able to sequence the entire fetal genome and would thus allow parents to be able to know many more things about their unborn children. Because this particular test delivers more information than just about diseases, Ms. Hayden suggests it “will also raise thorny ethical issues.”
She doesn’t say what those “ethical issues” are, but the notion of designer babies comes to mind, right after the specter of increased abortions.
At this time at least four different tests are available. Each is covered by insurance so that the out-of-pocket expense is only around $235. Advantage parents. Soon it will be easier and less expensive to find out in advance of their child’s birth whether or not they like what they see.
The market for such tests is projected to swell “from fewer than 100,000 to as many as 3 million” customers and is expected to grow to around $1 billion each year. Advantage biotech firms.
The scientific community’s interest is clearly in the wellbeing of the biotech firms. Quoting a Stanford bioethicist – not a biotechnician but a bioethicist – Ms. Hayden concludes her article by pointing out that “‘The bigger policy issue is whether society should allow monopolies on medical practice, especially for medical technologies that benefit from public funding.’” Advantage science.
Advantages all around, it seems.
But is there an advantage here for children? Are these same labs and biotech firms working to develop ways of treating in utero some of the diseases their tests may discover? Or are they content for parents simply to take their information and use it to help them decide whether to bring the child to term or to abort? The courts are not in a position to stand up for the unborn, in case, for example, parents don’t consider themselves prepared to deal with an autistic child – or one not of their preferred sex or eye color.
Shouldn’t the “bigger policy issue” concern the use to which information gained from these tests is put? To improve the lives of children, for example, rather than to convenience parents, enrich biotech labs, or advance the public cause of science?
This is precisely the kind of scientific work which, when it falls prey to the ethics of relativism, commercialism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism, can lead to large scale disasters over time.
In the absence of an ethical perspective grounded not in changeable human norms but unvarying divine revelation, science can quickly lose sight of its noble objectives and unleash a Pandora’s Box of unimagined ills. It falls to the members of the Christian community to make sure that doesn't happen.