Tuesday, 4 August 2015

On Assisted Dying & Genetically Engineered Babies

For me, one of the worst things we do in society is deny people the right to be assisted in suicide. Forcing people to live when they face each day in chronic pain, or without the ability to move their limbs, is disgraceful if the people suffering are of a mentally sound state and want to end their life of pain and unhappiness. There are many things about which we look back on our ancestors and scoff at how they could be so barbaric and undeveloped. Similarly, our current State-enforced legislation that denies people the right to end their own suffering and misery is, I suspect, something for which our future descendents will look upon us with sheer contempt and disbelief. They will be shocked that we in this present age could be so arrogant and so lacking in compassion that we denied people the basic right to be freed from their misery.

That said, that’s not precisely the issue I want to address in this blog. The issue I’m focusing on here is to do with disability, and what future attitudes will be towards the disabled. When I look at how society is changing, much of it is for the better, but a great deal of it is for the worse too. Attitudes change people's behaviour and people’s behaviour changes attitudes. Sixty years ago getting an abortion would have been hugely frowned upon. Now there are over 180,000 abortions every year in the UK. Once upon a time assisted suicide would have seemed abhorrent - in fact, even today many people are vociferously opposed to it, despite it gaining much popularity. Yet, as I said in my opening statement, for many the actual disgrace is in not allowing it – and it's highly probable that in forty or fifty years' time assisted suicide will be quite commonly accepted in society.

This leads me to the crux of my consideration - a kind of combination of abortion and euthanasia, whereby handicapped foetuses may almost always never make it to the birth stage. I'm not stating this as any kind of personal normative view, nor am I saying anything much about individual ethics - I'm simply pondering how the world might look in a future distant society.

Children with disabilities are actually a huge strain on the lives of parents and other siblings, as well as being, to a lesser extent, a slight strain on society too. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not making any comment about what should happen, nor am I denying the sheer delight that disabled children bring to many parents, I’m simply stating a fact that it is a lot tougher and more time-consuming looking after a disabled child than a child that isn’t disabled. I know several parents who have disabled children, and their lives are really tough - they find it very hard to cope. Currently many foetuses with Down's syndrome, Edwards syndrome or sickle cell anaemia are aborted, as are many other foetuses with brain damage and severe physical disabilities, but there is still quite a social stigma attached to the idea of aborting a foetus that has something wrong with it.

A lifetime of looking after a mentally or physically handicapped child, or a child with, say, severe Asperger's, is going to be a very tough life, and in a society in which the socially-imposed guilt no longer existed it is likely that a great many parents would simply choose to abort that foetus and try again, particularly as chorionic villus sampling (CVS) - a test that determines chromosomal or genetic abnormalities in foetuses via cells taken from the placenta - is becoming more widely used.

I don't doubt that the horrific historical legacies associated with Hitler's eugenics program has helped perpetuate the cultural divide between those who would abort a child based on its defects and abnormalities and those that wouldn't, but I wouldn't be surprised if in sixty years we become quite accustomed to genetically engineering our young. After all, in IVF we are already able to cull fertilised eggs that indicate severe genetic disease and reinsert healthy eggs in their place.

It’s not that we’re going to repeat the short-sightedness of people like H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, J.B.S Haldane, George Bernard Shaw, William Beverage and John Maynard Keynes – all of whom supported eugenics at one time or another in their lives – it’s more the case that as science further enables us to play a part in constituting the genetic make-up of our offspring, defects and abnormalities will be de-selected in favour of a selection process that guards against genetic deficiencies being inherited, and all this will seem perfectly normal and expected to future societies.
I sincerely hope we don't become so rigorously enamoured with a future scientism that we lose all sight of what it's like to love people for who they are, and show them kindness, tolerance, encouragement, respect and generosity of heart.