Comment at the Embryonic Screening Debate

This week DebSoc ventured into the world of scientific ethics, setting their motion as “This house supports the genetic screening of embryos”.

“Choice” was Treasurer of Debsoc Chloe Bitcon’s buzzword for the evening. Despite being script-reliant and understandably hesitant owing to the fact that she had stepped in at the last moment for the indisposed Sarah Norcross, Director of Progress Educational Trust, Bitcon nonetheless made a persuasive case in favour of the motion. She primarily dwelled on the opportunity for parents to ensure the health of their children, strengthening her argument through the use of poignant examples of families afflicted by hereditary disorders such as hemophilia, a rare condition in which blood cannot easily clot carried by women and passed onto male children.

Josephine Quintavalle from CORE (Comment on Reproductive Ethics) followed. Brandishing a t-shirt marked, “former embryo” and demanding a show of hands from the audience on who could wear it, it is to be assumed that Quintavalle was making the point that we should respect the rights of an embryo as we were once one too. Despite this, she did not develop the point, rendering her prop show somewhat irrelevant. Her subsequent argument was peppered with emotive language lamenting the embryos “languishing in freezers” and “processed to death” as part of a “search and destroy mechanism” based on “bad science.” This was an affecting argument indeed, though one that did not define why embryos should be accorded recognition or special status.

Christine Hauskeller, leading academic in the field of bioethics, backed Bitcon’s stance that screening serves as an enabling mechanism for families. She developed this argument by mentioning the utilitarian benefits of screening: a guard against both the financial and personal burden of supporting a disabled child. Crucially, she also dispelled the idea of a “designer baby” before the issue arose, maintaining that nothing is in fact “designed”, embryonic screening is merely a protective mechanism focused on improvement of life quality.

Unexpectedly, The Rt Reverend Colin Fletcher OBE, Bishop of Dorchester, chose to follow a non-religious line of argument. The Bishop commenced by eloquently destructing the notion of “viability” claiming that all life forms require the right context in which to flourish. He then tackled the difficult notion of “personhood”. The Bishop’s argument for the intrinsic nature of “value” was particularly compelling. Drawing on examples of Piggy from “Lord of the Flies” and the infamous “Stamp out the cockroaches” campaign in Rwanda, he was convincing in his assertion that rejecting the personhood of those who “cannot do”, whether embryo or elderly person, is a slippery slope.

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Audience questions were thought-provoking as always. Hauskeller and Bitcon were a strong united front against some of the more probing enquiries. When questioned on whether a world with minimal disease would constitute little funding for research, Hauskeller confidently asserted the unceasing presence of lifestyle-related illnesses would ensure the continuation of research. The proposition remained undeterred when questioned over screening escalating into mere aesthetic uses. Bitcon reasoned that strict regulation would prevent against this, whilst Hauffman highlighted the unlikelihood of women wanting to further complicate an already difficult process for such shallow reasons.

One audience member challenged the opposition over whether screening should be an extension of a women’s right over her body. While this was obviously supported by the proposition, the Bishop once again emphasised the rights of the unborn child, likening the discarding of unwanted embryos to infanticide. Quintavalle developed this point by adding that the discarding of certain embryos assumes that the individual would rather have not been born, exemplifying the point through references to individuals who have triumphed over Aspergers and Down’s Syndrome and created a happy working life for themselves.

Specifically aimed at the Bishop was the question, “If God created us in his image with a brain to invent this kind of technology, shouldn’t we use it?” Here, the Bishop was quick to highlight the perils of free will and the fact that our minds, though God-given, are just as capable of atrocities as valuable innovation. Hauffman insisted that the development of embryonic screening cannot be classified as a negative by-product of free will, but a product of solution-based thinking. Nevertheless, the Bishop argued that focus should be on caring for the weakest members of society rather than denying them a chance to exist.

On the whole, Hauffman was an impressive and convincing speaker. However, she was perhaps at her strongest when attacked by Quintavalle who paralleled the championing of screening to the defence of Nazi eugenics. Hauffman expressed fierce resentment towards this clichéd comparison of life-changing science to Hitler’s repulsive regime, as well as a personal distaste for the remark, being German herself. This warranted an enthusiastic round of applause from the audience, which perhaps contributed to the final success of the proposition who won by a great majority.

18 October 2013


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