Last night I attended the annual Darwin Day Lecture. The title of this year’s lecture was “mutants – and what to do about them” and was delivered by Armond Leroi, Professor of evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College London. He is the author of “Mutants: on genetic variety and the human body”.
The main thrust of Professor Leroi’s talk was that there are many genetic mutations of varying degrees of harmfulness ranging from genetic predisposition to breast cancer to a possibility of passing on the gene
Responsible for Downs Syndrom. In the future (10-20 years) it will be possible for parents to have their genome investigated to ascertain which genetic diseases they carry and, as a consequence the likelyhood of them producing children with genetic diseases and/or disabilities.
The majority of individuals want to have healthy and happy children, consequently they will opt for genetic screening which will, in time become the norm. The cost of such screening will, in time drop to around £10,000, about the cost of a reasonable quality car. People will pay this as they want the best for their children.
As I sat listening to this I felt cold. The thought of the T4 programme, in Nazi Germany kept coming into my mind. Under the programme many people with disabilities where either sterilised or killed as they did not fit in with the Third Reich’s vision of a healthy ayrian race bestriding the globe. Nazi propaganda refered to the disabled as “useless eaters” life undeserving of life. After opposition from leading churchmen the programme was officially dropped although the murder of the disabled continued, secretly until the end of World War II in 1945.
Professor Leroi did refer to the killing of people with disabilities in Nazi Germany and Professor Dawkins (who chaired the event) pointed out that until eugenics became associated with the Nazis prominent people on the left had advocated its use.
Professor Leroi in no way advocated the use of state enforced eugenics (indeed he said that such decisions should be left up to parents), however the import of his remarks, to my mind at least implied that disability is always a tragedy and we should do all in our power to avoid it.
The lecture left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. The idea of parents choosing their offspring as one might choose products in the supermarket has profound ethical implications for our society. Each human being is precious in his or her own right and by parents selecting those traits which they value we do, potentially risk debasing our humanity.
One can not nor should one try to close Pandora’s box, however let us hope that people use this knowledge wisely by, for example geene
Therapy rather than aborting embryos.
You can find Professor Leroi’s lecture at http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/02/09/bha-darwin-day-lecture-listen-live-at-730pm/