BBC Radio 4:Anne Atkins - 04/08/17


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How beauteous mankinde is? O brave new world

That has such people in’t.

In some ways I envy members of my family: my brother, daughter, son; my niece, my late mother – all scientists. All committed Christians, with an everyday insight into the workings of God’s creation, a closed book to me. I no more understand Crispr – the latest breakthrough in DNA engineering, which could eliminate such illnesses as cystic fibrosis and breast cancer – than I remember how my light turns on when I flick a switch. Though I thank God for its illumination.

It doesn’t seem long ago that we were in a moral lather about “test tube babies.” Now I have a number of friends, including one or two very close and dear to me, who wouldn’t have a family without the miracle of IVF. Only a century or so before that, some – male of course! – theologians considered pain relief in labour could be unethical because it countermanded God’s sorrowful warning to Eve of the sufferings of childbirth.

Ever since, the human race has been overcoming such evils. And succeeding: instead of filling a bedroom with flowers for our eldest and her newborn as they join us at the seaside tomorrow I would have been throwing petals on her coffin without modern medicine. Her husband has type one diabetes. And this genetic curse too could one day be broken by embryo editing, her children’s children born free of it. Who wouldn’t do away with any of ten thousand ills the flesh is heir to, which this new technology may soon make history. How beauteous mankind is indeed!

And yet. And yet Huxley could use Shakespeare’s brave new words ironically. We probably all agree we don’t want designer babies. I hope too we’d all gladly eradicate genetic disease. So the critical question must be: what constitutes disease? A heart murmur, of course: no sane person would inflict the horror of cardiac failure on anyone.

More ambiguous might be Down’s syndrome. Those with Down’s can have a shorter life expectancy and compromised health; but do we want a world without the richness of their enthusiasm and joy of their infectious laughter?

And what about autism? If we could target that gene, what would become of Silicone Valley, Cambridge University’s Maths and CompSci Faculties and perhaps some of the world’s best orchestras?

Two of our children have diagnoses of “disability”: one, Asperger’s syndrome; the other an acute mental illness; both almost certainly inherited. I would pour out my life to spare my daughter her dreadful mental anguish. But my son’s autism? Without his glorious quirkiness, he could lose his very genius.

God has spread his dreams, his children, under our feet. We should tread softly, lest we tread on his dreams.

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