Conversation about Tonight’s Lecture

I wanted to start a thread about tonight’s lecture by Ruth Schwartz Cowan at the Religion and Genomics Conference to hear what the people who attended thought about the lecture.

I enjoyed the lecture by Dr. Cowan, although it wasn’t what I had expected. I don’t have any experience with conferences like this one, but I thought the first speaker would make some statement or opinion about how genetics and religion will mesh (or clash) as we enter uncharted territory in the area of genetics and genetic screening. Instead, Dr. Cowan focused her lecture on how four different programs dealt with genetic screening in a historical manner. I understand it was an introduction to the conference, but I would have liked to hear some expert opinion on whether these programs are ethical and what arguments critics make regarding them (although the Q&A session afterwards started to delve into this realm).

Your thoughts?

-Zac Ramsey


~ by zacr12 on April 3, 2008.

7 Responses to “Conversation about Tonight’s Lecture”

  1. It seems that tonight’s lecture was really an introduction to the next couple of days’ talks. Dr. Cowan provided factual information about the three cases of childhood diseases and presented a mostly historical viewpoint. This was not surprising given her opening remarks about being a historian rather than a geneticist or theologian. She treated the subject by mostly withholding judgment for later talks or for more specific expert analysis.

    I thought it was interesting how science and religion come together in the three cases she presented. The parts about certain good things canceling out other bad things were especially thought provoking. I was wondering, along with the audience member who asked the reason for the lack of beta thalassemia syndrome births, whether genetic pre-screening resulted in fewer marriages of two carriers or whether couples just had more abortions. The fact that the decrease was because of abortions surprised me at first.

    Cowan stated at the end of the Cyprus example that some clergy were of the thought that if selective abortion enables people to be fruitful and multiply and reduce pain and suffering, it may not be a sin. From this vantage point, carrier individuals should still marry and consummate the marriage and continue to have sex to have kids, but if the fetus is affected with the disease it is all right to abort it.

    It seems to be a question of which sin is the worst. In this case, using birth control is worse than not being fruitful and multiplying and is also worse than aborting a diseased fetus.

    During the lecture, I was inclined to think that it would be selfish of a couple to try to have children if they know they are carriers of the recessive gene that causes this debilitating disease. I guess that means I don’t put much stock in the “be fruitful and multiply” admonition. However, then I wonder at what point or what disease risk should a reasonable couple not try to have kids? Expecting every screened couple to make that decision did not work to decrease the disease rate; allowing abortion did work.

    Also, at what genetic disease does a thoughtful clergy person stop allowing abortion? Down syndrome? Huntington’s? Sickle cell? These syndromes don’t provide for a pleasant time either, but how does one draw the line? It is artificial selection of human beings, exactly what we are reading about in the second half of Mendel’s Dwarf. Should we be able to create multiple zygotes and then choose our preferred child? In most cases I don’t think so. However, maybe special cases like these do warrant it in order to reduce pain and suffering. I think it is difficult, though, to apply cost/benefit analysis to determine whether a fetus should be carried to term or whether it is better off never being born at all.

    -Nikki Majoras

  2. In response to your post Nikki, I agree with your thoughts on the “be fruitful and multiply” admonition. I cannot follow the logic of a religious mandate that would increase disease and suffering in the world. Also, from tonight’s lecture, I gathered that the clergy would only allow abortion when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or the child had a disease in which it would die before childhood with no chance of reasonable medical help. However, Dr. Cowan’s statement about the double effect being a mistake was alarming to me– “two deaths are better than one murder.”

  3. I enjoyed last night’s lecture, but I think that I enjoyed the surprising remarks during the discussion even more. I had a few thoughts on some issues.

    The first issue I’d like to address is somewhat in response to Nikki’s interpretation the Double Effect clause. Nikki writes, “From this vantage point, carrier individuals should still marry and consummate the marriage and continue to have sex to have kids, but if the fetus is affected with the disease it is all right to abort it.” This is not what double effect means, and not what it applies to. Instead, double effect applies to cases where a pregnant woman will die unless she has a procedure that kills her fetus as a consequence. Double Effect states that an action having an unintended, harmful effect (the abortion of a fetus) is defensible on four conditions as follows:
    • the nature of the act is itself good, or at least morally neutral (the procedure is being done to save the woman, not kill the child);
    • the intention is for the good effect and not the bad (intention is to save the woman’s life);
    • the good effect outweighs the bad effect in a situation sufficiently grave to merit the risk of yielding the bad effect (the situation is as grave as could be—the woman will die);
    • the good effect (the woman lives) does not go through the bad effect (intentional abortion).
    However, Nikki is addressing an important issue: could aborting a baby certain to inherit an awful genetic disease, harmful to both the new human and its parents happiness, be a good enough effect to warrant an abortion? The law says yes, but arguably for reasons of liberty and women’s rights rather than ethics and human (or fetal) rights. Personally, I think there are two options, neither with wholly satisfying outcomes: in the first scenario, aborting a fetus certain to inherit a genetic disease is illegal based on the grounds that a fetus should retain basic human rights, and that abortion is essentially murder. In this case, human life receives an extra existential bonus point, and the worth of human life in general goes up. Conversely, abortion could be allowed, and no one has live with the genetic condition or deal with the pains of raising an afflicted child. However, then we have to deal with the consequences of human life being just another organism, just another product of ours to mold into our liking. Who knew humanity was a malleable substance?
    (Note: if the case Nikki referred to WAS about a priest validating an abortion that wasn’t going to kill the mother, sorry for the confusion. But to the best of my knowledge, double effect is applied to matricidal pregnancy cases such as uterine cancer and/or ectopic pregnancy).
    The second issue I wanted to address was a question that I raised my hand just a minute too late for Dr. Cowan to answer. My question was, “What evidence is there, if any, of nonreligious persons planning their marriages based on healthy genetic compatibility?” It would be very wrong to assume that a nonreligious person would simply abort a baby with a genetic disorder. Further, if genomics becomes a more prevalent issue in society, it might not be unreasonable to see a trend in couples marrying to conceive the most genetically optimal child—especially if legislation prohibits any sort of “baby customization” capabilities that prenatal genetic engineering might one day possess. What, then, is the value of a marriage, or love and sex in general? I think that in these cases where religion and genetics often intersect, so too do our conceptions of human motivations for marriage, love, reproduction, and life in general. If marriage occurs motivated by genetic compatibility, does romantic love die with it? Do we take on extramarital relationships to satisfy our need for love, leaving our marriages for the purposes of raising a family only? Some scenarios seem more unlikely than others, but regardless, something will have to change. I think that the only certainty about our future is that it’s going to be a bumpy ride for morality and ethics no matter which road we take.
    -Jason Wire

  4. Jason-
    I was not interpreting the Double Effect clause in my response as you thought. I know that Cowan spoke specifically about the Double Effect clause during the twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome example and its relation to the Catholic tenet. I was actually interpreting the meaning of another one of her statements regarding the group of Greek Cypriots. If you recall, she said (and I paraphrase) while I may not or you may not agree, some clergy in the community were of the opinion that while it is still considered murder, if abortion enables people to be fruitful and multiply and reduce pain and suffering, it may not be a sin. I was interpreting this statement rather than the Double Effect clause, something that I agree with you is entirely different.

    In response to your question that you never got to ask, I think that the idea of people marrying for genetic superiority already somewhat happens. Arranged marriages and public prejudices against interracial relationships, for example, seem to be perceived as a method to achieve the most “genetically optimal” family. In nature, males have a plentiful amount of sperm. Their goal is to transfer it to as many females as possible. Conversely, females’ eggs are limited and fewer. Their goal is to find a mate who is genetically favorable or who can provide ecological benefit–one who can convey the fittest genes on to her offspring. The males often compete with mating dances or nest building, etc. to prove their fitness. I would argue that humans act in comparable ways and that genetic compatibility and romantic love both currently exist. I liked your question. I just thought I’d throw out some ideas.
    -Nikki Majoras

  5. Yes, now I remember the exact moment of the discussion you were speaking of. Very sorry for lapsing. Anyways, after researching this issue I found some pretty interesting information here:

    This details the history and state of sexuality in Cyprus, including information about abortions. Some interesting quotes:

    “Interestingly, on the issue of abortion, women’s span of control or available choices seems to be much greater than in many other countries, even of the developed West…During the 1974 Turkish invasion many Greek Cypriot women became pregnant after being raped by Turkish soldiers during the hostilities. As a consequence, the relevant law was radically amended to allow medical intervention for the termination of unwanted pregnancy in such cases. In addition, a provision was made for pregnancy to be terminated if two doctors advised that the life of an expectant mother would be in danger should pregnancy be allowed to continue, or in cases in which a newborn baby would face the risk of serious physical or mental disability.”

    And what’s more…

    “Finally, the Church, though in theory opposed to all forms of abortion, seems in practice to be only paying lip service to a cause it does not really care to fight for. One suspects that the main reason for this is that the Church cares mostly to control not the private decisions but the public behavior and choices of Greek Cypriots, since it is the latter which serves as an index of its power.”

  6. I was not able to attend the lecture on Wednesday night, but I think this thread touches upon yesterday’s class discussion on abortion. Mendel’s dwarf doe snot shy away from addressing the often contrvoersial issue of abortion. I viewed the novel as in favor of the option of abortion due to the main characters’ nonchalant attitude towards using abortion as a method of birth control as well as an example of “new eugenics” by using abortion to produce only desirable offspring.

    When Jean realizes that she is pregnant, she argues with Benedict that an abortion is the “responsible” course of action considering “the situation that we’re in” (178). She also says that “the child might be like you [Benedict]. And I wouldn’t want that” (179). So, essentially, Jean argues that her main reason to have the abortion is because she does not want a child that might be a dwarf. The child is in no harm of having mental disabilities or life threatening disease, but the child could be short. She wants to abort the child because of a physical stature. It might not be ideal, but the decision seems to be purely cosmetic. If Jean wanted to be responsible, she should have been responsible BEFORE having sex and used some form of birth control to exclude the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy rather than being “responsible” after the fact.

    Some people in class mentioned that Jean’s remorse and depression after her abortion point to the fact that the novel is anti-abortion. However, even after Jean’s abortion and her subsequent depression and even use of the words “expedient murder” to describe the abortion, she does not disclude abortion as a viable form of birth control to produce only a healthy child (186). Benedict acknowledges that Jean would “have to risk another termination- terminations, plural- if we were unlucky” and the unborn child was a dwarf (206). So, even after the traumatic first abortion experience, other abotions are not out of the realm of possibility.

    The characters’ attitudes toward abortion seems very casual and disregards the moral aspects of life and responsibility. While Benedict’s attitude might be less surprising due to his lack of religious belief and his science background, but Jean’s inclination to use abortion is surprising due to her religious background.


  7. The most interesting exchange we have had on this blog.

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