Foetal Screening: Good or Evil?

22/06/2012 17:06 BST | Updated 22/08/2012 10:12 BST

Earlier this month it was reported that US scientists have developed a blood test which claims to screen an unborn child for up to 3000 genetic conditions by examining its entire genome. Commenting on the morality of such a test, fertility expert Lord Winston said that screening based on the entire human genome was ethically no different from the rather more limited screening carried out at the moment for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Down's Syndrome. A few days later, the Daily Mail reported that Britain's first gay dads, currently fathers of five, are travelling to America for treatment to ensure that their sixth surrogate child is a girl. The couple are reputedly wealthy and have shopped their way to a large and beautiful family.

Although disconnected in one sense, the two stories both reflect the modern tendency to apply consumerist principles to what used to be the lottery of reproduction. Babies have become a commodity and people are paying for 'better ones'. The ability to pre-determine the sex of a child through IVF techniques and to learn the sex of a foetus early in pregnancy using ultra-sound or DNA analysis, has in parts of Asia led to a massive demand for male babies. China's ratio of male to female births is already several percentage points out of kilter.

Though a liberal in many aspects of my thinking, I am unashamed to say that my liberality doesn't extend to interfering with the natural reproductive process. I am a Christian - not the Bible bashing, happy-clappy kind, I hasten to add (I try to be the reflective and tolerant kind) - and have spent a lifetime believing one thing above all others: that life is a sacred gift and must not be violated. We mess with it at our cost.

When my wife and I had our first child back in the mid-90s, we were offered an ultrasound scan. We declined it, deciding that we would have whatever child we were given and didn't want to be offered the choice of aborting a foetus that carried an abnormality. Second time around we were persuaded to have a scan, but we were no less determined not to play God and terminate if we didn't like the look of things.

For my part, at least, this stance wasn't purely about Christian principles, it was about a basic respect for life which crosses religious and cultural boundaries. I couldn't help thinking that the spooky eugenicists of the early 20th century - Hitler was the most notable, of course - would have leapt on this modern technology with a passion. Here is a chance, they would have thought, to edit out the bad blood and ensure the continuation of a pure and healthy race. Nazis had to wait until a disabled child was born to dispose of it; how much more convenient and morally less taxing to deal with it beforehand.

The modern argument for not having a disabled child is that to bring a life that will be tainted by suffering into the world isn't a kindness to child or parents. If suffering needn't exist, then to prevent it is surely the preferable course. It's a seductive proposition, made even more so by the ability to peer inside the womb and screen foetal DNA: now giving birth to a disabled child becomes a positive choice. As prospective parents in the hands of an institutionally secular NHS, you can easily be made to feel that giving birth to a child with known abnormalities is a morally reprehensible act: you have been confronted with the opportunity to prevent suffering and have declined it.

And there, I suppose is the rub. The Christians among us who believe in the inviolability of life from the moment of conception, also have to accept the inevitability of suffering: if God wills it, then it will be so. Those who want their unborn children screened for 3000 genetic abnormalities (surely most will carry at least one of them?), will continue to believe that they are best judges of what constitutes a worthwhile and viable life. I try to understand their position, but I can't help wondering where it will all lead. In another 50 years we may have mastered techniques for 'improving' the DNA of the unborn. Not only will be able to edit out negative characteristics, we will be able to make all our children six ft tall and stunningly intelligent, and what parents could resist that? Can human beings really be trusted with such power? I truly doubt it.