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Pre-natal testing, eugenics and designer babies

The media has trumpeted the coming of a pre-natal test for autism. Is this true? If it is, what are…

By Monica Tanaka , in Insomniac , on January 15, 2009 Tags: , , ,

The media has trumpeted the coming of a pre-natal test for autism.

Is this true? If it is, what are the implications?

Bioethical questions are running circles in my brain. My quality of sleep has gone down. Flipping the switch—turning my brain off—has been a struggle.

It started when I read a recent story about a British baby girl born without BRCA1, a gene linked to breast cancer. The parents, using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, were able to select an embryo that didn’t have the fatal BRCA1 gene.

In my mind, online and in print, the designer baby debate was re-ignited.

Before my brain had dealt with the backlog of information/decisions that had piled up from the holidays, science hit again.

This time it was with new research emerging from the lab of Simon Baron-Cohen, developmental psychologist at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Baron-Cohen had found that fetuses exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb were more likely to develop autistic traits.

What does this mean?

Baron-Cohen said it supported his ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism, since testosterone has been associated with some male cognitive abilities. Others in the scientific community rejected the claim that fetal testosterone is linked to autistic cognitive traits. Baron-Cohen has called for a public debate over the implications of a screening test for autism.

So who’s right?

A consensus hasn’t been reached, but like wildfire, stories have spread on a possible screening test for autism. The Guardian health editor, Sarah Boseley, talked about such a possibility and its implications in an interview this past Monday.

On the Guardian’s science blog, James Randerson suggested that if a pre-natal test for autism were available, future geniuses would be aborted. Not a genius, but certainly autistic, Anya Ustaszewski’s comment piece in the Guardian argued for societal change and the greater inclusion of autistics. She considered pre-natal testing for autism an act of eugenics.

Let’s get back to the science.

We don’t know what causes autism. A link between autism and testosterone is contentious, points out a story in Nature. The scientific community is not in agreement over testosterone’s role in autism. Ann Robinson, a British doctor, questions the safety and reliability of an autism test based on levels of fetal testosterone.

I wonder how this debate will unfold. Blogging about it has had the therapeutic effect of making my brain sleepy. I’d keep writing, but I’m quite tired and will probably start to repeat myself.

I think it’s time to flick the switch.