That illnesses can now be diagnosed and treated when a child is still in the womb represents a significant advance in modern medicine. Some diagnoses can be achieved by testing the genetic make-up of an unborn child either in utero (in the womb) or in vitro (in a test tube). Pre-natal diagnosis and treatment are, as I say, significant medical advances. However, they also raise significant ethical questions.
In vitro diagnoses frequently accompany in vitro fertilization (IVF), which itself presents ethical problems that we will not consider here. When IVF is accompanied by prenatal genetic testing, additional ethical problems can occur. An embryo that is found genetically undesirable is likely to be destroyed precisely for that reason. In such a case, the injustice of discrimination is added to the injustice of killing. Moreover, the attempt to identify and implant a genetically desirable embryo is likely to lead to the fertilization and destruction of increased numbers of newly conceived human beings.
Prenatal genetic diagnoses during pregnancy are not so ethically problematic. Genetic diagnostic testing is commonly administered as a standard aspect of prenatal care. It can be of help to parents in preparing to cope with the challenges of raising children with genetic disorders such as Down syndrome. In some cases, prenatal genetic testing can even lead to the diagnosis of disorders that can be successfully treated by gene therapy. In these cases, prenatal genetic diagnoses can be morally good. Difficulties arise when prenatal genetic diagnoses are made for the purpose of aborting unborn children that are found genetically undesirable. As in cases of genetic testing in vitro, this use of genetic testing in utero compounds the evil of killing the innocent with the evil of unjust discrimination. It also leads to the proliferation of abortions.
The ethical problems presented by prenatal genetic diagnosis seem to be rooted in a kind of mindset that people can have about bearing children. Many people, especially married couples, want very much to have children. This desire is natural and good. Having children is something to which we are naturally inclined. Having children is also a task given us by God, whose first words to the human beings He created were, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1: 28). So when couples find themselves unable to have children it can be a source of great sorrow. Married couples faced with this situation deserve compassion and can often profit from the assistance of natural methods and medical specialists to achieve pregnancy through their acts of conjugal love.
The desire to have children is good. It becomes ethically problematic when their desire for a child leads a couple to suppose they have a right to a child. When a couple thinks they have a right to a child, they necessarily think of the child they might conceive in a false way. In their minds, their potential child is no longer someone they might receive as a gift from God, but someone they might produce with the assistance of technicians. The child is then thought of not as a human subject possessing rights of his own, but as an object that his parents have the right to possess. As Donum Vitae puts it,
A true and proper right to a child would be contrary to the child’s dignity and nature. The child is not an object to which one has a right, nor can he be considered an object of ownership: rather, a child is a gift, ‘the supreme gift’ and the most gratuitous gift of marriage, and is a living testimony of the mutual giving of his parents. (CDF, Donut Vitae II, 8.)
This kind of mindset becomes even more troublesome when people imagine they not only have a right to a child, but a right to the child they want: the perfect child. Coupled with the practice of prenatal genetic testing, this way of thinking can lead to tragic results. If a couple imagines they have a right to a genetically flawless child, they can use genetic testing as a means of producing such a child. The tragedy is that to produce the “right” child, it is often found necessary to destroy the “wrong” child, if not multiple “wrong” or “unnecessary” children. This misuse of prenatal genetic testing can, in turn, reinforce the troublesome mentality. Insuring the genetic wellbeing of one’s children is a desirable thing. Now that this desire can be fulfilled through prenatal testing, it becomes tempting to fulfill this desire at all costs, even the cost of unborn human lives.
The right to life is the right of every human being, including unborn children. It is the right to have own life valued and respected. It is not the right of one human being to the life of another. Human beings should be valued for who they are themselves, not for the fulfillment they bring to others. Human beings are subjects to be loved, not objects to be used. Human life is not a commodity. Having children is not like picking apples. We can’t just keep the one’s we want and throw out the ones we don’t.