Embryonic Ethics: A War of Perspectives

The New York Times’ article – cited by The Globe –  raises controversial questions around prospective parents selecting which embryos to implant, and avoid passing down a familial genetic mutation. This is accomplished by producing embryos via in vitro fertilization (IVF), and testing them with a method known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Given my interest in rare genetic mutations, I wanted to further investigate the raised issues and provide an unbiased perspective to the questions.

When are prospective parents justified in discarding embryos? Is it acceptable, for example, for diseases like GSS, that develop in adulthood?” 

Determining “appropriateness” using disease onset as justification is discriminatory and unjust, because it develops prejudice towards a specific sub-population based on their genetic determinants of health. Complications that arise from genetic disorders – such as GSS – will unequivocally manifest as a function of mutated genes.

” And should people be able to use it to pick whether they have a boy or girl?” 

In Canada, the answer is no! It is illegal to discard embryos based on gender, and it is clearly stated in Canada’s Assisted Human Reproduction Act:  

  • (e) for the purpose of creating a human being, perform any procedure or provide, prescribe or administer any thing that would ensure or increase the probability that an embryo will be of a particular sex, or that would identify the sex of an in vitro embryo, except to prevent, diagnose or treat a sex-linked disorder or disease;

Source: http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/a-13.4/page-2.html#h-4 

An obligation to discard “sick” embryos  (i.e. the ethical thing to do)

Even in the context of rare genetic disorders, stating that parents have a “moral duty” and an “obligation” to “spare the next generation” is rather suggestive, and may be interpreted as an endorsement to discard “sick” embryos. Not all couples are aware of carrying a genetic mutation, and affordability is relative. Also, I’m not sure if “the next generation” is in reference to the ‘potential’ child, or society in general. Flicker (2012) argues that if the “best interest of child standard” is the basis to suggest a duty to deselect embryos, then it cannot be applied. As Flicker points out, deselecting “sick” embryos cannot be legally enforced, because the “best interest of child standard” applies to an actual child, and not the potential of an embryo that may develop into one.

Discarding embryos post PGD results (i.e. an unethical thing to do)

Discarding embryos based on information from a PGD may be deemed unethical, because a discarded embryo can ‘potentially’ develop into a child therefore requiring protection. A recent publication argues potentiality’s validity using evidence in cell biology. Steir and Schoene-Seifert’s (2013) argue that ‘potentiality’ is “depontentialized” (i.e. rendered useless), because of our ability to convert cells -including humans’- with no potential of developing into an organism, into cells that develop into organisms- such as converting skin cells to develop mice pups.

Literature Cited:

Flicker, L. S. (2012). Acting in the best interest of a child does not mean choosing the “best” child. The American Journal of Bioethics : AJOB, 12(4), 29–31. doi:10.1080/15265161.2012.659372

Stier, M., & Schoene-Seifert, B. (2013). The argument from potentiality in the embryo protection debate: finally “depotentialized”? The American Journal of Bioethics : AJOB, 13(1), 19–27. doi:10.1080/15265161.2012.743619