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Testing Human Flaws

While genomic technologies may offer all kinds of ways to improve human life and health, they also may pose some uncomfortable philosophical questions about what it means to be human and imperfect.

In another installment in a series seeking to translate contemporary genomics issues for a popular audience, the Vancouver Sun's Randy Shore says prenatal testing is one particular area in which genomic knowledge can lead to difficult questions.

There are currently no real rules to guide what prenatal diagnostics are used to test for, Shore says, but he notes that most women in Canada who get a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome opt to have abortions.

Because the same tools currently used for trisomy testing could soon be used to test for markers of less severe issues, such as those that indicate risks for obesity, diabetes, mental illness, or cystic fibrosis.

And then there is the possibility of testing for eye color, baldness, or intelligence; what should be done if some people want to have abortions based on these types of traits? Some evidence already has shown that couples in certain nations are already choosing to abort female fetuses, particularly if they already have two daughters.

"It’s no stretch to imagine that at some point, someone somewhere will be willing to end a pregnancy in the hope of later conceiving a child with the potential to be smarter or taller," Shore writes, and notes that even screening for disabilities is controversial.

"Disability rights activists and other people ... worry about the way in which technology can have a corrosive impact on our notion of humanness and valuing humanness in all its forms," even Down syndrome, says Mary Anne Bobinski, dean of the faculty of law at the University of BC.