GENTECH archive


[BOSTON GLOBE]Genomics and the new politics of abortion

Boston Globe
February 4

New politics of abortion 

By John Ellis,
Globe Columnist

     One of the least attractive features of right-wing politics is its
persistent demonization of homosexuals.  Most gay men and women live dual
lives; one within the mainstream culture and one apart from it.  Belonging
and not belonging is not easy.  Making it harder is, at some level,
morally reprehensible, especially so when right-wingers cast their
aspersions in moral terms.
     In July of 1993, Dean Hamer of the National Institute of Health
published an influential paper announcing the discovery of the ''gay
gene.'' By the year 2001, the mapping of the human genome will be
complete, and work can begin to either confirm or disprove Hamer's
discovery.  Because of the enormous computing power of modern
microprocessors, this inquiry may produce definitive results before the
end of the next decade.
     It seems likely, based on the data gathered so far, that
homosexuality is indeed genetically determined.  If it is, then questions
of motive are irrelevant.  As Tom Wolfe wrote in Forbes ASAP a few years
back:  ''if homosexuality is a genetically determined trait, like
left-handedness or hazel eyes, then laws and sanctions against it are
attempts to legislate against nature.''
     Last week, Harvard University announced that it would invest US$150
million to US$200 million in the sciences that may provide us with
definitive answers to these and other questions of human behavior.  As the
Globe's Adam Pertman reported, US$70 million has already been allocated to
the Center for Genomics and Proteomics (the study of genes and their
proteins) and the Center for Imaging and Mesoscale Materials
(nannotechnology).  The remaining millions will be spent on
neuroscientific research.  The goal is to bring together academics and
scholars from every discipline to reexamine human behavior in the light of
genomics-based research.
     Genomics is both exciting and terrifying.  As Claire Fraser, a
leading scientist in this field, told Juan Enriquez of Harvard's Center
for Genomics Research, genomics represents a revolution in human
understanding.  ''In the next 10 years we will see some of the most
extraordinary discoveries in the history of science.... We can either give
evolution a shove in the right direction or in the wrong direction,
depending on whether we know what we are doing.''
     For example, it may soon be possible to predict accurately what kind
of life a child might have based on his or her genetic code.  A DNA sample
can be acquired in the first moments of life.  This sample could then be
immediately analyzed on a DNA chip.  The results could inform the parents
what ''traits'' are embedded in their child's genetic code.  Decision
trees regarding that child's development could then be built to help him
or her live a happier, healthier life.  That's a wonderful promise and an
extraordinary opportunity.
     But it is also terrifying, because the same DNA sample can be
acquired from a fetus.  Imagine for a moment that the parents learn that
the fetus will grow up to be homosexual and that, for whatever reason, the
parents decide that homsexuality is not what they want for their child. 
The decision to abort is available to them, and they make that choice. 
There is terror in that. 
     The antiabortion movement has long argued that abortion is murder by
another name.  This view has been derided by the mainstream culture as
both ignorant and hysterical.  Adopting marketing jargon, pro-abortion
advocates have recast the decision to terminate pregnancies as an issue of
''choice.'' In this effort, they have been remarkably successful. 
     Richard Wirthlin, who did polling on this issue for the Mormon
Church, found that the word ''choice'' (as in prochoice) defeated the word
''life'' (as in pro-life) in focus groups by a margin of 2 to 1.
     What happens when the ''choice'' becomes an ''informed choice?'' Some
parents already struggle with this issue after amniocentesis.  They abort
babies that they are reasonably certain will have Down syndrome.  It is
hard for any morally sentient person to be judgmental about that.  What
would you do, given the same set of circumstances?  The truth is that even
the most morally enlightened among us would think long and hard about
aborting such a fetus.
     Genomics takes this quandary further, into unexplored moral
territory.  It makes possible the abortion of homosexual fetuses.  It
makes possible the abortion of fetuses that show a genetic disposition to
disease and disorder.  Shortly after the moment of conception, an outline
of that child's life can and will be known to all who care to know.  And
''informed choices'' to abort fetuses could become routine.
     It has been argued by some that the politics of abortion are moot
because of pharmaceutical technology.  The exact opposite is true.  The
science of genomics reraises the abortion issue in its starkest moral and
political terms.  How it is decided decides, in very real terms, who we
will be.

John Ellis is a Globe columnist. 

Genetics and Public Issues/National Center for Genome Resources

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