The following comes from a May 8 story in Crisis magazine by Richard Becker.
Culture 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 markers for mental illness in utero. 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 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 comes as 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.
We all know that autism awareness and 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 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….
[Crisis] editor’s note: This essay first appeared April 6, 2014 on the author’s blog “One Thousand Words a Week” and is reprinted with permission. Above is an image of a developing fetal brain.
To read the entire article, click here.