The two-edged sword of advanced medical technology is evident in a story from today’s edition of The Guardian [London]. According to the paper, some doctors are calling for a policy revision that would allow women with a family history of breast cancer to use IVF technology in order to give birth to children who do not carry genes associated with the disease.
Here is how the paper sets the story:
Women with a family history of breast cancer could be allowed to use IVF to have children free of the disease under proposals due to be discussed by the government’s fertility watchdog tomorrow.
The move could result in fertility clinics being given the green light to offer the service, which involves screening out embryos containing genes that make them susceptible to breast cancer.
Any move to extend the use of so-called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) will anger lobby groups who denounce it as a “eugenic approach” to medicine. But scientists argue that eliminating embryos with the faulty genes at an early stage could prevent suffering in later life.
Currently 10 clinics in the UK are licensed by the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority (HFEA) to carry out PGD for rare fatal genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis. In this case, if both parents carry one copy of the faulty version of the gene which causes the disease they have a one in four chance that their child will develop it.
Eliminating breast cancer is an important and worthy goal — a goal that poses no ethical problems in itself. But, when the means of avoiding breast cancer (or any disease) involves the creation, selection, and destruction of human embryos, we face huge ethical problems.
Here is how the debate is represented in the paper’s article:
“Medicine is about caring not about killing,” said Josephine Qintavalle of the lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, which opposes all uses of PGD. “The right approach is about learning more about the cancer and curing it.”
Fertility doctors disagree. “If families would wish to eliminate the threat of serious cancer from their family they should be at liberty to do so,” said Simon Fishel, managing director of CARE, a group of fertility clinics.
Here we find two opposing worldviews. The statement from Mr. Fishel comes with no ethical boundaries at all — no apparent limitations. His statement is straightforward: “If families would wish to eliminate the threat of serious cancer from their family they should be at liberty to do so.” By any means? He is clearly willing to sacrifice human embryos. What is next?