The Ethics of Embryonic Sex-Selection Treatments As pre-implantation genetics diagnosis are used for embryo selection, Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center says that while it's understandable why parents would want to avoid giving birth to a child with a life threatening disease, it opens up questions about devaluing the lives of people with disabilities.

The Ethics of Embryonic Sex-Selection Treatments

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To help us sort through some of the ethical ramifications of this new frontier of pre-implantation genetic testing, we turn to Eric Cohen. He's director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center here in Washington, D.C. He's a leading voice on bioethics issues, and he's here in our studio. So glad you're here, Mr. Cohen.

Mr. ERIC COHEN (Ethics and Public Policy Center): I'm happy to be here.

NORRIS: Mr. Cohen, in these stories, we've heard about using this kind of testing for a host of reasons, for making sure that a child does not have a fatal disease to sex selection. What do you make of all of this?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think there are basic reasons that people use PGD. The first and the most common is a desire to avoid terrible childhood diseases, and who couldn't empathize with that motivation. All of us blessed with healthy children are so fortunate, and those who have children who are afflicted by these terrible diseases have to see them suffer, have to bear the burdens, often heroically, of caring for them. We all understand that motive.

The problem is that you avoid the disease by eliminating the patient, and you're really engaged in a kind of new, high-tech eugenics, motivated for compassionate reasons, but one that changes our sensibilities about how we welcome and see the children that are brought into the world, but also one that requires eliminating and weeding out "unfit," quote, unquote, embryos.

NORRIS: You've thought much about this. You've also written about this. You write that we as a society will need to make choices, and those choices will require philosophical judgments about better and worse. You say the new genetics will deliver us many goods but also confront us with many burdens. What are the burdens?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think there are different kinds of burdens. The first is the moral burden of are we going to be the ones that pass judgment on new life in this way, whether to avoid disease, a motive that is understandable, whether to avoid disabilities, such as weeding out embryos that have Down's Syndrome, and whether to simply weed out the children we don't want, the girls rather than the boys, the boys rather than the girls, the short rather than the tall. Are we going to become the people that see reproduction and procreation in that way?

But I think there's another kind of burden, more subtle but perhaps in some ways just as profound, which is the anxieties that genetics is going to set before us. Obviously, genetic technology is going to do great good. It's going to allow us to solve and cure many terrible diseases and afflictions, but it's also going to give us a kind of genetic readout of our lives and the lives of our yet unborn children.

Do we really want to know whether our child has a 60 percent chance of getting Alzheimer's disease when he turns 70? Do we want to begin the act of welcoming a new life into the world with a genetic readout of all the ways that that life might suffer in the future? I think that produces lots of burdens that we need to think hard about and decide how we're going to set limits on the uses of these powers.

NORRIS: Now you're not comfortable with this. Other obviously are. Who should decide, in the end, what is and is not permissible?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think the country in a democratic way has to decide. We have to debate what kinds of moral limits we want to set on this area just as we debate all kinds of complicated moral problems, and I think this is a question for citizens. It's obviously a complicated area of science. It's obviously an area that touches on that most intimate realm of human reproduction, but it's also a realm that affects the kind of society and the kind of culture and the kind of people that we are.

We have to decide what we think about the prospect of what many see as a kind of new eugenics, and we have to decide what kind of limits, if any, we're going to set on this technology.

NORRIS: Eric Cohen is the director of the Bioethics and American Democracy Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Cohen, thanks for being with us.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you.

NORRIS: There's much more about pre-implantation genetic testing. You can find that at our Web site,

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