On first hearing, it sounds like something out of science fiction: mapping the genome of a person who has not been born yet. But that's exactly what geneticists at the University of Washington announced that they were able to do.
Their accomplishment has been called a "glance into the future." But the question is: What kind of future?
Writing in the journal "Science Translational Medicine," the researchers described how they reconstructed the genome of an unborn child using a blood sample from a pregnant woman and a saliva sample from the father.
According to the New York Times, they used a combination of "new high-speed DNA sequencing and some statistical and computational acrobatics." Their accomplishment "heralds an era in which parents might find it easier to know the complete DNA blueprint of a child months before it is born."
Now, "high-speed DNA sequencing" and "statistical and computational acrobatics" sounds impressive. But this begs the most important question: Why would parents want to know their unborn child's complete DNA blueprint months before he or she is born?
The specter of "Gattaca" (the 1998 film about a society in which most children are made-to-order), is so visible in this story that even the New York Times warned of serious ethical considerations; considerations such as the possibility of an "increase [in] abortions for reasons that have little to do with medical issues and more to do with parental preferences for traits in children."
Not only would fetuses with genetic diseases be aborted, as they usually are now, but the article says "it is also possible that parents may be tempted to terminate if the fetus lacked a favorable trait like athletic prowess."
Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society told the Times that this technology could "spur questions on 'who deserves to be born.' " In a similar vein, Dr. Stephen A. Brown of the University of Vermont spoke of a move toward "positive selection"-a euphemism for God-like decisions about who should be allowed to be born.
For all the talk about "better and better prenatal diagnosis," experience teaches us to be skeptical about where this genetic foresight will lead.
For starters, there's what happens to unborn children who are diagnosed in utero with genetic illnesses: relatively few of them are ever born. Prenatal diagnosis already functions as a kind of "weeding out" process: Adding "thousands of genetic diseases" to the list, as this new technology will make possible, simply means more dead children.
And, for the foreseeable future, this technology cannot heal anyone – it can only give prospective parents reasons to kill their unborn child. A child made in the image of God.
Anybody who thinks that parents won't be tempted to turn to their local geneticist for the perfect baby has not been paying attention. We already live in a culture where some parents demand that doctors prescribe a Schedule II amphetamine, Adderall, just to help their kids compete against their peers. And a culture that can't bring itself to meaningfully condemn sex-selection abortions, at home or abroad, will not stand in the way of parents who want to play God.
All of which makes this "glance into the future" the stuff of science fiction nightmares.