Of Autism, Prenatal Testing, and the Seventh Extinction

People say, ‘The price of genetic diseases is high. If these individuals could be eliminated early on, the savings would be enormous.’ It cannot be denied that the price of these diseases is high…, [b]ut we can assign a value to that price: It is precisely what society must pay to be fully human.
~ Jérôme Lejeune, French pediatrician, geneticist, and Down syndrome research pioneer

brain3_0ac27ea9c169f18cd259c0d38219c6cdCulture of life, culture of death – how big is the divide? Here’s one measure.

The other day I caught a story on NPR about researchers identifying genetic signals in utero of future mental illness. The following is a quotation from the transcript. Read it, and then jot down the first word that pops in your head:

Having a map like this is important because many psychiatric and behavioral problems appear to begin before birth, “even though they may not manifest until teenage years or even the early 20s,” says Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

OK, what was your word? “Provocative,” perhaps? “Fascinating,” or “Wow!” even?

How about “Abortion?” That was my first thought, and my wife reacted similarly when I I brought the story to her attention. If you’re committed to building a culture of life, I imagine that was your reaction as well.

But could it be that we pro-lifers just tend to be a bit paranoid? Could it be that my wife and I simply overreact to stories like this, discerning nefarious anti-life implications where none are warranted?

I don’t think so.

To begin with, it’s no surprise that the story itself is unabashedly rooted in abortion. The researchers obtained the brains they studied from four aborted fetuses, “a practice,” the NPR story notes, “that the Obama administration has authorized over the objections of abortion opponents” – you know, paranoid pro-lifers like you and me. So, even if the research does in fact lead to life-affirming therapies, it will be forever and inexorably tainted by it’s life-destroying origins.

And what of those potential life-affirming therapies? The NPR report is curiously silent on this point. Perhaps that is not unusual since this is ground-breaking research in its earliest stages. Nevertheless, there are telling gaps in the story where at least some speculation regarding future clinical applications would’ve been appropriate – maybe even expected. Take, for instance, this observation regarding autism, including a comment from Ed Lein of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science:

[T]he map shows that genes associated with autism appear to be acting on a specific type of brain cell in a part of the brain called the neocortex. That suggests “we should be looking at this particular type of cell in the neocortex, and furthermore that we should probably be looking very early in the prenatal stages for the origin of autism,” Lein says.

_65307055_autistic_boy-spl-1We all know that autism advocacy is very prominent these days, so shouldn’t a report on these exciting brain mapping developments include some kind of comment regarding the possibility of a prenatal cure? Instead, what follows in the NPR story is a discussion of how human brains differ from mouse brains, and how fetal brains differ from adult brains. The autism question is sidelined.

In a separate NBC News story, Lein held out a little more in the way of hope:

The findings are also in line with other research suggesting that early intervention can make a big difference for children with autism. “There’s converging evidence on a place in space and time where we should be putting our focus,” Lein said.

More hope for autistic children already born, yes, but still very vague with regards to prenatal implications – at least from the researchers’ vantage point. But those of us who follow such stories closely, the prenatal implications are all too clear: Once the genetic markers for mental illnesses like autism are identified and confirmed, and a test is developed that is cost effective from the heath insurers’ perspective, parents will be encouraged to screen their pregnancies accordingly, and babies destined for autism will be eliminated just as Down syndrome children are.

Does that sound crazy? Maybe, but it’s really just Margaret Sanger’s eugenicist dream come true. Sanger, the founder of what has become the international Planned Parenthood organization, was known to rail against those she labeled “morons,” “imbeciles,” and “mental defectives,” and she especially advocated for expanded birth control access for the lower strata of society in order to be rid of such persons. Sanger declared that “the greatest crime of modern civilization” was “permitting motherhood to be left to blind chance, and to be mainly a function of the most abysmally ignorant and irresponsible classes of the community.” And what Sanger wasn’t able to accomplish with birth control alone, her heirs are certainly accomplishing with prenatal testing and selective abortion.

And it’s not just mental illness and Down syndrome in the eugenicist cross hairs. Consider these sobering words from Nick Cohen writing in The Observer:

Suppose researchers claim to identify gay genes. Their discovery would be pseudo-science. A Gordian knot of environmental, cultural and hormonal influences would be as important in determining sexual preference. But there they would be on the web and in the text books: gay genes. Parents, who hated the idea of a gay child, could demand screenings and abortions. Why not? Parents who hate the idea of a daughter have unleashed a “gendercide” across China and northern India, where there are now 120 boys being born for every 100 girls.

age-dinosaur-bones-1The new research on fetal brain development is hot off the press, but we’d have to be naive to think that there aren’t people already thinking about how they can cash in on this new research – and I’m not talking about prenatal curative therapies. Let’s face it: Getting rid of a problem (in this case, human beings with a problem) is always easier (and sometimes more lucrative) than solving the problem itself.

Which calls to mind another story I heard on NPR – this time, about Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent book, The Sixth Extinction, in which she argues that, following on the heels of five massive natural extinctions, mankind is currently responsible for another ongoing global extinction of species that is as big as its predecessors, and could prove to be one of our most significant legacies on the planet.

Serious as Kolbert’s claims are, they pale in comparison to what some are calling a Seventh Extinction, in which man is projected to, in essence, wipe himself out.

Projection? It’s already happening. First, it was Down’s and girls; next it could be autism and other brain disorders; perhaps later, gays and lesbians; and then, who knows?

In any case, given the current penchant for cleansing the gene pool, it’s not a bad idea to be on guard, especially when your obstetrician starts talking to you about prenatal testing. And as far as the new fetal brain mapping is concerned, I like this comment from Brussels researcher Pierre Vanderhaeghen: “It’s always difficult to know what will come out of it.”

No argument there.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this story appeared on Crisis.

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2 Comments

  1. Prenatal Testing and Abortion | Crisis Magazine
  2. Genetic markers for mental illness

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