One step closer to becoming 'raw material'

June 19, 1996|By PETER J. CATALDO

BRAINTREE, Mass. -- C.S. Lewis wrote in his ''Abolition of Man'' that ''it is in Man's power to treat himself as a mere natural object and his own judgments of value a raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. . . . If man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.''

It seems that the advent of a new technology for selecting a baby's sex will bring us one step closer to becoming that ''raw material'' in Lewis' prediction. Proponents of the technology see the ethics of this issue as concerning disease prevention for families at risk for genetic diseases linked to the X chromosome. I believe it is an issue about disrespect for human dignity and the loss of true freedom.

Before looking at the ethics of the issue, we need to know what the new technique is and what is its medical potential. Of the 6,000 human bodily defects that can be inherited, about 370 are associated with the X chromosome. Chromosomes carry genes that are the building blocks of life. Sons of mothers who carry defective genes linked to the X chromosome can in- Peter J. Cataldo

herit diseases caused by the defective genes.

Pre-fertilization sex selection attempts to sort the X- from the Y-chromosome-bearing sperm in order to generate female offspring by using only female-producing X sperm in an artificial fertilization procedure. The hope is that the probability of conceiving males will be reduced or eliminated, and hence the probability of having a child with genetic disease.

In the new method of preselecting sperm, a fluorescent stain is given to sperm that allows them to be illuminated with a laser beam. The X sperm are then detected and sorted into a concentration for use in artificial fertilization.

In addition to the purported benefit of reducing or eliminating the probability of transmitting X-linked diseases, it is claimed that this technology will also reduce or eliminate the current practice of selective abortion of affected males. It supposedly will also create a higher proportion of embryos suitable for transfer into the mother's uterus (because they would be female) as a part of in-vitro fertilization procedures.

But are these possibilities truly beneficial, given the human cost? The first thing to recognize is that the technology does not actually prevent disease. The technology primarily and directly affects sex, not disease. The absence of any X-linked disease as a result of the technology is due to the fact that a specific female individual came into existence, rather than a male. It is absurd to claim that a disease has been prevented when the individual who would have had the disease never existed.

This is not disease prevention; it's gender prevention. Moreover, prefertilization sex selection is regarded as a benefit compared with selective abortion and male embryo discarding in an in-vitro fertilization only if one assumes that these are the only alternatives. But clearly they are not.

Since this technology achieves only gender prevention, it represents still another domination of science and technology over the dignity of human life and its transmission. Couples who utilize the technology are essentially asserting a right to another person. The child is treated as an object of manipulation when the marital act is eliminated and the couple attempt to design and control the very identity of the child.

Personal identity

The biological nature of every person is, as John Paul II has said, ''constituent of the personal identity of the individual. . . . Each human person -- in his or her absolutely unique singularity, is not constituted only by the spirit but also by the body. Thus, in the body and through the body one touches the person itself, in its concrete reality.''

This fundamental singularity of the person is denied through the use of prefertilization sex-selection technology. In itself, then, this technology is wrong. But its harmful effects must also be considered -- among them the psychological effects on the child who learns that she is not wanted primarily for herself but for who she is not, or the possibility of using the technology to support current unjust social and cultural gender biases in different parts of the world.

Advocates of this technology do not recognize the moral truth that we must never do what is wrong so that good may result, because they only recognize the technology imperative: to have technology is to use technology. Far from giving people control, the technological imperative makes people objects of subjugation.

Of this approach to life, Lewis rightly observed: ''The power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some men to make other men what they please.'' This is precisely the reality of pre-fertilization sex selection.

Peter Cataldo, research director at the Pope John Center for the Study of Ethics and Health Care, wrote this commentary for Newsday.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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