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Saturday, November 23, 2013

Screening Out Autism

Authorities in Western Australia will let IVF clinics to "screen"  embryos to reduce the chances of autism. Andrew Whitehouse writes at The Conversation:
The Reproductive Technology Council will now allow certain women undergoing IVF treatment to be selectively implanted with female embryos only. The rationale for this practice is that autism is more likely to affect males than females (approximately 4 males for every 1 female), and by selecting female embryos, the chances of this child developing autism are reduced.
The West Australian reported that: “only families at high risk of having a child with autism, such as families who already have two boys with severe autism, would be considered for embryo screening”.
The reaction to this report was swift and furious, and came from all corners of the globe.
Some were concerned about the science underpinning this approach, and pointed to recent evidence that autism may be under-diagnosed in females, and that the gender imbalance in autism may not be as skewed towards males as we once thought. These critics argue that the selective implantation of female embryos may not actually reduce the chances of a child developing autism.
Others opted for a more extreme attack on health professionals and families, branding the developments as eugenicist - a scientific discipline that advocates practises that are aimed at improving a population’s gene pool. The connotation of this label is a deeply negative one, and will be forever linked to Nazi regime, who used eugenics as a justification for the genocide of Jews, Gypies, homosexuals and others during World War II.
Understandably, PGD is a technique that causes concern within certain parts of the autism community. Some autism advocates argue that PGD will eventually be used to select autism out of the gene pool.
The flip-side of the debate is that autism sometimes associated with significant disability that can affect quality of life.
It is without question that a person’s life would be improved if they were free from intellectual disability, if they had the facility to communicate more freely, and if they had the capacity to live independently.
To want a person to live without disability does not diminish in any way our love for people in these circumstances, nor their irreplaceable importance in our lives.
At National Review Online, Wesley J. Smith takes exception:

If someone can be treated medically to overcome the effects of autism, I don’t know who would object. Whitehouse is saying that it is respectable to prevent them from ever being born.

And don’t think that a genetic test wouldn’t lead to calls for mandatory pre-natal testing and the promotion of eugenic abortion–just as now with Down syndrome and other gene-related disabilities.

Whitehouse says that debating autism cleansing is a “needs to be had.” That is like saying allowing eugenic cleansing for racial features is a debate we need have: Both are invidiously discriminatory and have no place in an enlightened, equality-believing society.

P.S. The great animal welfare advocate, Temple Grandin, has mild autism. Our food animals have benefited tremendously because she wasn’t selected out before birth.