The person and the embryo

24 June 2008

The person and the embryo

For a number of weeks a heated debate has been raging between supporters and opponents of embryo selection by women who wish to become pregnant but who fear transmitting breast cancer genes to their offspring. This is no simple matter.

Jan Marijnissen, MP

In my opinion politics is there to serve people and to contribute to their happiness. You would not wish on anyone the anxieties which parents endure as a result of the fear of having what was in earlier times in my region of Brabant always termed an 'unlucky' or 'unhappy' child. If we are really capable of getting rid of such anxiety by ensuring that a child will not inherit breast cancer, then we must do so. Certainly, but let's think this through. What will this mean in the end, if we can do ever more of such things?

Embryo selection is already occurring, but only in the case of the most serious conditions and in cases where it is a hundred percent certain that the carrier of a gene will suffer the condition in question. In the case of breast cancer, the chance is eighty percent. But what if the chance were twenty percent? A chance of one in five is a large chance, but still? Are we going in the best direction with this? Or are we likely to find ourselves on a slippery slope that will in the end take us straight to eugenics?

Experience teaches that much of what is possible will in the end also become available, whether or not via the commercial circuit. Think of all those possible tests and medicines which can be freely had through the Internet. Think of the growing number of private clinics in which money is earned through plastic surgery. Say that, via the commercial circuit, and in the course of time through the regular circuit, ever more possibilities arrive to estimate beforehand the likelihood of offspring suffering illnesses of various kinds. What will the reaction of the community be when parents decide not to take advantage of these possibilities and instead to give life to a child with a congenital disability? How will insurance providers view this? Will people say "this is behaviour which should be reproached, we're not reimbursing the costs?"

The SP parliamentary group took a thorough look at these questions last week, and we haven't entirely finished with them. In the case of embryo selection in connection with the breast cancer gene we are in agreement: this must be allowed. But not all of the other questions can be answered so easily. I think that the only manner in which it's possible to say anything sensible about this is to ask yourself what's possible, what is reasonable and what is humane? In relation to many things we think differently now to what was the case fifty years ago. Take for instance abortion, and euthanasia. There's nothing wrong with this – our morals change partly under the influence of what becomes technically possible and available. If this contributes to the furtherance of human dignity, and consideration of it is based on solidarity, I am not going to worry and I am actually all the happier that we can help people in their striving for health and happiness. Abundant and sound information and a pragmatic rather than a so-called principled approach is here the only solution.

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