Saturday, April 01, 2006

Eugenics analogy used inaccurately and selectively in The Times

I was struck by the science correspondent, Mark Henderson's comment piece in the Times today "We should all boo that weaselly phrase 'the welfare of the child'. Apart from the fact that Mark Henderson has a platform to dismiss this clause and there is no counterpoint put forward by anyone arguing in favour of the "welfare of the child", it also struck me that it was rather clever how he raised the spectre of eugenics to tarnish any state restriction on fertility treatment. He says that:

"The [welfare of the child] provision enshrines a concept in law that was last popular in the heyday of eugenics: that the State has a right to decide who should and should not become parents. Civilised societies no longer forcibly sterilise the mentally ill or disabled, and constrain the reproductive rights of convicted criminals only for as long as they are locked up. We do not vet fertile men and women before allowing them to have sex, even when they have a history of violence or drug abuse. Expectant mothers are free to smoke and drink during pregnancy, regardless of the risk to the foetus. Yet as soon as people need medical help to conceive, an entirely different standard is applied.

Is anyone taken in by the idea that state restrictions in the interests of safeguarding children, which simply attempts to consider the child as well as but not instead of the infertile couple, on immensely expensive, experimental and often ineffective fertility treatment is an abuse of human rights, when it simply refuses a not medically essential treatment on serious welfare grounds, has anything in common with the universally condemned forced sterilisation programmes on a whole population of women in Peru or China motived by blanket racism which maims women? Surely there is a vast difference between the violence of forced sterilisation and voluntary and often ineffective IVF procedures?

Is it not in fact entirely justifiable to consider the welfare of the child when the state has a hand in fertility, and therefore a responsibility for the child, in a way that is not justifiable when no lab techniques are involved? How is it eugenics to ensure that non-essential medical techniques are only applied when it is obvious there is no harm to those involved?

Isn't eugenics much more applicable to many IVF procedures including pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) which seeks to test and destroy embryos for being "defective"? Why use the eugenics argument to attack the welfare of the child clause and say nothing about the eugenic principles underlying PGD, where embryos can be discarded because they might have a late onset condition? or the trend towards designer babies when parents could design a supposedly "perfect" child (surely a good birth and inescapably eugenics) they want down to blue eyes as a parental right without state interference?

Who will fill the decision-making gap if the state leaves it up to whatever couples want and whatever IVF clinics (motivated by money as Deborah Spar points out in her book on the IVF industry) want to give them? How is it better for the state to wipe its hands of any responsibility and for the IVF clinics and infertile couples to make eugenic choices themselves?

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