Playing God

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"With genetic selection, the mother becomes the quality control gate keeper of the gene pool," says Greg Wolbring, a biochemist and bioethicist at University of Calgary. "This is not really choice, it's eugenics. We can't kill imperfect people, like the Nazis did, so we do it more subtly by preventing their birth."Wolbring is commenting on the draft legislation that Health Minister Alan Rock introduced last May to regulate genetic technologies. The draft legislation - which is currently before the standing committee on health and could be introduced sometime in the new year - bans cloning, commercial surrogate motherhood, buying and selling ova and sperm as well as the most ethically problematic genetic procedures, such as removing genetic material from a body after death, and sex selection.Wolbring compares genetic selection to sex selection or female infanticide in India. "There, it is socially much more viable to have a male child than a female child. Here, it is much more socially acceptable to have an able-bodied than a disabled child." The problem in both cases, says Wolbring, is society's prejudice. "If sex selection is abhorrent, than why isn't disability selection?"For Wolbring, genetic selection simply reinforces prejudice against people with disabilities. From his point of view, the problem with Rock's bill is that it puts that prejudice into law by banning sex selection but not banning selection by disability. "This bill reinforces the idea that disability is bad," say Wolbring. "But disability is not necessarily bad. If society had a different attitude to disability, it wouldn't be bad at all."For the bioethicist, this is the last acceptable prejudice in our society. "I was born without legs," he says, "most people would consider that a tragedy, but I don't."Wolbring wants to see the ban on sex selection dropped from the bill so that disability selection is not so explicitly accepted. It is hard to see how this is any solution, given that genetics is primarily a science of selection. The idea that selection for disability should also be banned is so far from where public opinion is today that Wolbring is not even suggesting it. He says if we are going to have choice than we should have choice for everything, including sex. Joan Meister - also a disability activist and former chair and founding mother of DAWN Canada (DisAbled Women's Network) - agrees with Wolbring that the bill accepts pre-natal eugenics but "banning sex selection would be progress for women and I don't see how that would set people with disabilities further back."There's also the worry that this bill is too little too late. Ten years ago, the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies (RCNRT) recommended most of the measures in the draft legislation. When hearings were being held in 1991, I was president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). That organization produced a brief called "A Technological Handmaid's Tale." As a feminist group, our major concern was women's health and the creation of a breeder class. But we also realized that the greater danger in reproductive technologies lay in possibilities for genetic selection and manipulation. As genetic selection becomes increasingly sophisticated, the pressure will be on women to choose only the highest quality embryo through artificial means. According to McGill professor of epidemiology and biostatistics Abby Lippman, designer babies are not possible. The very real danger lies in selecting out unwanted characteristics. "I wish I were a tomato," says Lippman. "People are all worked up about genetically modified food, but no one seems to give a damn about genetically modified people."

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