CAMLAW: Complementary and Alternative Medicine Law Blog

Genetic Screening Hits National Health Service

The National Health Services in the United Kingdom proposes to implement genetic screening, based on Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), originally developed in the late 1980s to identify genetic defects and chromosomal abnormalities in embryos before they are transferred to the womb.

The Daily Mail in the U.K. has reported that far from instilling comfort, the genetic screening scheme has raised concerns about the slippery slope from 'screening' to 'designing' human characteristics.

Screening will look for diseases such as Fragile X Syndrome, Cystic Fibrosis, Diamond Blackfan, Krabbe's disease, Sickle Cell, Tay-Sachs disease and Marfan Syndrome. So far at least six patients have had the NHS-funded screening. The physician in charge has been quoted as saying, "This is the beginning of a genetic diagnostics revolution."

He is probably right, and to use the expression I'm becoming increasingly fond of, the genie won't go back in the bottle.

Amazingly, the technique "looks for the 'molecular fingerprint' of a specific disorder in a single cell 30 times smaller than a pinhead taken from a eight-day-old embryo....couples at risk of transmitting an inherited disease to their children can have individual genetic 'typing' taken from their own DNA to ensure the specific defect is identified. The defect is then searched for in a single cell taken from the embryo and the results come back within 48 hours. The rate of misdiagnosis is less than one per cent...An embryo that is unaffected can be implanted in the womb using IVF."

This allows us to choose among embryos. But if religious sources tell us that ensoulment begins prior to the time when this technique can be used, are we than tampering with the soul? Or "simply" making choices about which souls become incarnate, and when? Are these choices any different or more or less different than lifestyle choices resulting in conception? How far over Nature will human dominion extend, and when is enough, enough -- or is limitless progress the goal -- or is the whole thing defensible on utilitarian grounds, simply weighing the costs and benefits?

I suspect future generations (or even ours) will take for granted matters we once assumed ethically controversial.


Law Offices of Michael H. Cohen offers general corporate legal services, litigation consultation, and expertise in health law, with a unique focus on alternative, complementary, and integrative medical therapies.

Michael H. Cohen is also President of the the Institute for Integrative and Energy Medicine, also known as the Institute for Health, Ethics, Law, Policy & Society. The Institute serves as a reliable forum for investigation and recommendations regarding the legal, regulatory, ethical, and health policy issues involved in the judicious integration of complementary and alternative medical therapies (such as acupuncture and traditional oriental medicine, chiropractic, massage therapy, herbal medicine) and conventional clinical care.

The most recent book written by Michael H. Cohen on health care law, regulation, ethics and policy pertaining to complementary and alternative medicine and related fields is an interdisciplinary collection of essays entitled, Healing at the Borderland of Medicine and Religion. This is the fourth book in a series, begun with Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Legal Boundaries and Regulatory Perspectives (1998).

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