The technology itself aside, there are some pretty serious problems with this particular article.
Marrin starts out by saying that "Nature is astonishingly cruel. Science, by contrast, has the power of mercy."
Embracing new technologies with very little critical examination is as bad as rejecting them out of hand. I worry that Marrin commits the former sin, and here's why: in arguing for an all-out embrace of this genetic screening, she says-
This is indeed playing God, as all the usual campaigners were quick to point out last week. But what on earth is wrong with humans playing God? I am all for it, especially as God doesn’t seem to be doing it. Besides, whatever we may think about playing God and defying nature, we are doing it already and even though we don’t necessarily recognise it, we approve of it.
For instance, there are many people who in the course of nature would die before they were old enough to have children. They might suffer from inherited heart defects or blood disorders that would kill them if they did not get transplants or dialysis. They might have disabilities that would kill them as newborn babies, without intervention. If properly treated these people may well live to be able to have children and some of those children will be at risk of inheriting the same problems and, in their turn, may pass them down the generations.
Eugenicists might think, and used to say publicly, that this is bad for the gene pool. Yet hardly anybody, I imagine, believes that such people should be denied treatment.
Of course no one would argue that such people should be denied treatment. But comparing routine medical treatment with potential eugenics arguments seems... bizarre to me, at best. This new screening technology certainly opens up a place for the eugenics discussion once again, but it hardly seems that bringing adults receiving now-routine medical treatment into the argument, even for the sake of analogy, is a good idea. She's implying that since we are keeping more people alive with what she considers disabilities, we are already in the playing-god business. So, the logic appears to go, shouldn't we play god with those people's children, as well, since they bring a potentially larger risk into the gene pool? I really don't think the author intended to bring eugenics into the discussion by making eugenics arguments.
But the author's arguments get even more ill-advised:
Simone Aspis of the British Council of Disabled People said last week that she was opposed in principle to such screening on the grounds that it sent the signal that being born disabled was a bad thing. The mind reels. Over the years I have got used to the disability lobby talking in this spirit, so it no longer seems as absurd as once it did, but surely it must be obvious that it would be far better for a person not to have a disability than to have one.
To say that a disability is undesirable in itself is not to say that a person with that disability is undesirable in herself, or her life worth less than someone else’s. The disability is not the person. It is to say that her life would be better without that disability.
This is where I start to take (further) issue. "It must be obvious that it would be far better for a person not to have a disability than to have one." Not only do I not find it obvious, but I immediately want to know what qualifies as a disability. I realize there are some very obvious illnesses in which a child has a short, painful life full of suffering. The 6000 conditions that this test screens for are surely not all of that type. Who decides that X is a disability and Y isn't? As Anita Silvers has pointed out, things considered disabilities can be advantages in some situations (if someone in a wheelchair decides to race me on the street tomorrow, I'm going to lose!) I think we should add to that the fact that evolution itself works via random mutation, and we have no idea what will be beneficial in the future. I happen to agree (contra this author) that it is wrong to send the signal that being born disabled is a bad thing. It assumes that every difference is an automatic downgrade. I'm reminded of the child born in China recently with a fully functional third arm - which was removed purely because it was abnormal, and not because it was painful, or harmful, or promised a life of suffering to the child. (In fact, I would argue a third arm would provide a pretty serious advantage, speaking especially as a violin player!)
The author says that the life of someone with a disability would be better without the disability, and that such a claim passes no judgment on the individual whatsoever. Without being accused of being PC (which is absolutely not what this is about) I heartily disagree - the author is absolutely claiming that the individual is worth less because of the disability. If the life is not as good as it could be, our lives, the lives of "normal individuals," are better - we are better off. We lead better lives by this argument. How can the author claim that this is not passing a judgment on the individual?
What's even more interesting to me are the comments that follow the article. Many of them raise worthwhile points, too lengthy to examine here. But Jabir, from Singapore asks: "Also, if a couple cannot produce an embryo that passes the screening test without any diseases, should they be deprived of having children?" Of all of the problems this technology creates, this comment is the best illustration of two: the problem of individual choice and the lack of public understanding surrounding new technologies. While both of these are blog entries unto themselves, these things are all bound up together inescapably. No one is (or should be) demanding that every couple use this technology. Perhaps that would be truly playing god, and that's one more god I could do without.
Cross posted to hyper-textual ontology