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The Most Beneficial Research?

By Marty Nemko

Imagine you’re having your annual physical exam, and during your conversation with the doctor, you mention that you or your partner is planning to have a baby. The doctor responds:

“I want to tell you about a new option. Of course, you can conceive your baby the old-fashioned way, but there’s a new choice. As you may know, for years, many couples unable to conceive choose to have their eggs and sperm examined under a microscope, and the eggs and sperm that look normal selected to conceive their baby.

“Now, we’ve refined that process. Even if you can conceive the regular way, you now have a new option: we can screen your eggs and sperm not just to see if they look normal, but we can now identify those that are free of defective genes causing short lifespan, low intelligence, and severe mental illness. And because you are on Medicare, it would be entirely free to you.

“I want to stress that the option resides completely with you. If you want, I can refer you to an appropriate specialist. If not, go have fun!”

Many people’s initial reaction to genetic choice is negative, for example, “It’s tampering with God’s will, the natural order of things” But many even of those people come to realize that every medical intervention, from a polio shot to heart-bypass surgery is “tampering with the natural order of things.”

Other people will conflate genetic choice with the Nazis’ unconscionable ideas about genetics. The Nazis forced people to be sterilized or killed. That couldn’t be more different than allowing prospective parents a new option.

Still other people will worry that only society’s wealthy will take advantage of the genetic choice option, exacerbating the gap between society’s haves and have-nots. That concern is legitimate. That’s why it is important that it be provided free to all people who are on Medicare and other government-subsidized health care programs. In addition, it’s imperative that—just as is being done with AIDS education—extensive efforts be made in low-income communities to ensure that all people are aware of and understand the genetic choice option.

I believe any objections to the genetic choice option would soon be dwarfed by the realization that affording potential parents that choice would allow millions more babies to start life without a devastating loss the genetic lottery that conferred on them huge disadvantages.

And society would benefit enormously:

Of course, having millions more people live a normal-length lifespan would bring incalculable benefit and pleasure.

Only slightly less dramatic would be the effect on education. In the last few decades alone, our public schools have spent well over a trillion(!) dollars of taxpayer money to provide compensatory education, unfortunately, with little results. The gap between high and low achievers is as wide as ever. If no students had an 85 or lower IQ (currently 17% of the population), all children would learn much more, which would enables them to live richer lives and be more capable of helping to solve society’s problems. Beyond the benefits to society, a person who struggles through school and life because of low intelligence often feels impotent, depressed, without options other than menial employment. Contrast that with the bright person, for whom success occurs far more often and for whom interesting, lucrative career options abound. Think too of the joy that parents get from a bright child compared with the frustrations of a slow child.

Mental illness such as depression, schizophrenia, and psychopathic violence disorders, wreaks havoc on the lives of the sufferers, their families, and the victims of the violent crimes they commit. Starting life without the genes predisposing them to mental illness would profoundly benefit those people and everyone around them.

Today, funding research to make the genetic choice option available would seem impossible. The Bush administration is prohibiting the federal funding even of most stem cell research, which would have been conducted on embryos that otherwise would have been discarded. So, there is no chance of the Bush administration endorsing a genetic choice proposal. But administrations don’t last forever and the private sector still has, for now, a measure of discretion to decide what research to pursue.

Much research on reducing genetic predisposition to diseases is already underway. But I believe it’s time to start a nationwide discussion of whether to extend such research to such goals as the ability to replace defective genes with normal ones. Should such research be limited to finding a way to replace genes predisposing people to diseases? Extended to replacing genes that lead to low intelligence? Even replacing normal genes with those for high intelligence?

No matter what we do, science and technology will proceed. I believe that, as with cloning, restricting such research in the U.S. will only move it to other countries, perhaps countries with less concern that technology be used ethically. I believe that the U.S. should focus not on stopping research but on maximizing the probability that it will be used to ethical ends.

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