“30 dead embryos are the price paid for one healthy child”

The German parliament is debating a ban on whether to legalise screening embryos for unwanted genetic traits.
Paul Miller | 18 March 2011
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Not every innovation is beneficial. The 1997 film Gattaca is a dark tale of what can happen when a society genetically engineers its offspring. The story is told through the eyes of a human who was conceived the natural way – without having been screened for genetic defects – and thus illegally.

This dystopian parable is no longer a fantasy. It has been the subject of passionate debate in the German parliament this week: should doctors be allowed to screen test-tube embryos for unwanted genetic traits? The procedure, commonly referred to as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), was illegal in Germany until June last year. Then the Federal High Court of Justice ruled that in some cases PGD was legal. Since then, Europe’s most populous nation has seen months of arguments and discussion.

The Bundestag is debating three different options: whether to ban the procedure, or to follow two proposals that boil down to allowing it in certain cases. With experts split on the matter and a legal fracas brewing after the June ruling, the country seems at a loss on how to form a consensus.

Up to now, Germany has taken a very conservative line on selecting (and destroying) embryos. In the United Kingdom and Australia, it is legal, with some restrictions, like a ban on sex selection. In the United States, there are almost no restrictions. IVF clinics routinely offer clients sex selection, “saviour siblings”, screening for genetic diseases or risky genes, and even traits like eye colour.

Last week, the German Ethics Council was expected to provide some guidance by issuing a formal recommendation. The Council is an independent body of scientists, doctors, philosophers, lawyers and theologians. But rather than help resolve the question, it refused to make a recommendation and confessed to being split on the matter. Whilst 11 members are strictly against PGD, 13 members came out in favour of a strictly limited use, for instance where parents are highly likely to pass on “serious genetic disorders” to their artificially conceived children. One member took an independent view.

According to figures published in Human Reproduction, a journal of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), over 40,000 embryos were artificially created in 2006 (the latest year for which numbers are available), but only 1,206 children were ultimately born. In other words: “For one healthy child conceived with PGD you pay the price of over 30 dead embryos”, as noted PGD-critic Manfred Spieker points out. For this well-known ethicist, this is an unacceptable number. But it is not the main reason why PGD should never be allowed in the first place.

Professor Spieker, who teaches Christian Social Sciences at Osnabrück University, has written extensively on bioethics. He says he is understanding of couples who want to have children. But he quotes former German Federal President Johannes Rau, who once declared that “Even the most understandable wishes and desires do not constitute rights. There is no right to bear children. But there certainly is a right of children to have loving parents – and above all a right to be both born into this world and loved for your own sake.”

Like many other countries, Germany has a right to human dignity enshrined in its constitution. It is this fundamental right – and others – that a critic like Professor Spieker sees broken by PGD: “Where there is human life, it has human dignity; it is irrelevant whether the holder of this right is aware of it or not. The inherent potential to this ability is enough to uphold the right to human dignity.”

What is worse, according to Spieker and other critics, the destruction of embryos involves “clashes with the first three articles of the German constitution which enshrine human dignity, the right to life and freedom from discrimination for the handicapped”. Even the pragmatic German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has called for a complete ban on the controversial practice, and is backed up by the German Catholic Bishop’s Conference, which heavily criticised the Ethics Council’s vote and called PGD a grave violation of Germany's Constitutional Law and embryo protection law.

It is not just Christians and conservatives who have reservations. Prominent philosophers and disability groups have also called for a ban. They are concerned that PGD will increase pressure on women to only bear healthy children – leading, amongst other things, to discrimination against those not so healthy, and anyone mentally or physically challenged.

This is one of the main concerns of Jürgen Habermas, one of Germany’s most prominent living philosophers. Habermas has consistently and repeatedly expressed his opposition to the legalisation of PGD. “It is disconcerting when we decide which life deserves to live, and which does not”, Habermas warned as early as 2001.

In a country in which the memory of Nazi barbarities is very much alive, the eminent philosopher’s warning is particularly relevant. Many people here remember the rounding up and killing of children with disabilities across Germany. In a move taking eugenics to a barbaric extreme, they were killed – some in mobile gas chamber trucks – simply for resembling life designated by Nazi medical doctors as “not deserving of living”.

Paul Miller is a freelance journalist who writes from Munich.

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