Impact Debates… Genetic Screening

Genetic Screening has long been a controversial subject about whether it is right to test the genes of an unborn child without their consent to find their risk of developing genetic disorders, or potentially for selection purposes. Impact looks at both sides of the debate on whether genetic screening is right or wrong.


Should we be prying into the very component of life and deducing what a person could be before they are even born? Even more so when the unborn child has no chance to consent to having their genes analysed. The long and the short answer are both yes. There is the fear that every child will be subjected to invasive genetic screening and the result would be a future society, as depicted in fictional films such as ‘Gattaca’ where people are classified by the ‘quality’ of their genes. A fundamental reason for my belief that genetic screening is a good thing is that it cannot and will not ever be forced on anyone. So from an ethical standpoint genetic screening can mean as little or as much as a parent wants it to mean, they can request screening or decline it at their own discretion and then doctors can advise them on what action to take. Let us not forget many prenatal tests are already analysing unborn children, maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein (MSAFP) and multiple markers screening which tests for abnormal levels of a protein made by the foetus can indicate Down syndrome. These methods are commonplace and widely accepted when compared to the stigma over genetic screening and yet are no less invasive but are arguably less reliable and less accurate.

Why shouldn’t they be allowed to know and make a choice and opt in for complete genetic screening?

If families with a history of genetic disease (perhaps parents who are active sufferers of a genetic disease, say cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease) have lived with or experienced the disease first hand and know what it’s like and know they would not like to subject their child to the same lifestyle, why shouldn’t they be allowed to know and make a choice and opt in for complete genetic screening?
Future applications for this technology are growing. Genetic screening in the future is potentially limitless and now is the time to increase its use. We are only just scratching the surface of a possible genetic revolution; not unlike the digital revolution we have lived through. Personalised medicine to select optimal therapies based on the context of a patient’s genetic content is very much a huge reason for my support of genetic screening. Genes play a role in drug response; everyone has slight genetic variations – be it in terms of gene expression or single-nucleotide polymorphisms that affect drug absorption; its distribution through the body and its effectiveness. Personalised medicine to optimise drug therapy with regards to each patient’s genotype and from an ethical standpoint could save lives.
At the dawn of this era we can postulate on the fallout of genetic screening, the potentially increased number of abortions and the ‘big brother effect’ of having our genetic content known and studied or we can accept it for what it is – a method to enhance our ability to protect human interests and create better quality of life.

Oliver Steels


There’s no denying that genetics is one area of disease control that is really beginning to take off. But, we shouldn’t believe that at this stage genetics will solve all our problems. There are many reasons we should still be wary of advancement in this area, as a result genetic screening is still widely debated.
Firstly and perhaps most publicly known, are the moral implications. Abortion rates (or rates of embryos destroyed in the genetic screening IVF process) will rise if genetic screening is increased. The arguments for and against abortion are a whole debate on their own, but the sanctity of life must at least weigh partially on your mind when considering genetic screening.

What if embryos are falsely screened and destroyed?

Genetic screening can tell us if a foetus suffers from or carries any number of genetic conditions, it cannot tell us how those conditions will affect the child’s quality of life. Cystic fibrosis is one of the conditions in which genetic screening is moving forward, but treatment for this condition is also developing and suffers can live to the age of around 37. Stephen Hawking has spoken out recently in support of assisted dying in cases such as his, but his arguments were all based on a person making an informed choice to die. An embryo doesn’t have the capacity to do this, and we do not have the right to make that choice on its behalf.
Apart from these ethical considerations are several practical ones. Screening all potential parents to see if they are carriers of all genetic diseases would be vastly expensive, using IVF and genetic screening in all pregnancies would be impossible. The IVF pregnancy success rates are still relatively low, causing yet more expense and trauma to couples, genetic screening can still not guarantee parents a healthy baby. Genetic screening also still has low accuracy rates. What if a test results in many false positives, and perfectly healthy couples are forced into the IVF and screening process? What if embryos are falsely screened and destroyed?
It’s my belief that the benefits of genetic screening are not yet worth venturing into the moral grey area it lies in. Maybe one day when we can offer cheaper, more reliable and fairer tests it will save lives, but as it stands now it’s potential to harm is far greater than it’s potential to help.

Louisa Hepworth

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