Feminism: Genetic Testing is not Genetic Engineering

[Content Note: Infertility, IVF, Eugenics, Hostility to Reproductive Rights, Animal Cruelty, Hitler]
[NB: Not only women have uteri, get pregnant, and/or have need of access to abortion.]
[Repost Note: This is a repost of an article that previously appeared on Shakesville.]

An Egg by Petr Kratochvil
Richard Dawkins needs to stop talking about pregnancy, as far as I'm concerned.

Last Wednesday, he felt the urge to devote a series of tweets rehashing an old discussion he had with Peter Singer regarding whether or not the mythical pain supposed felt by an aborted fetus was hypothetically comparable to the pain felt by an adult pig slaughtered in inhumane conditions and came to the conclusion -- all the while ignoring the fact that human women can demonstrably feel pain too -- that while Dawkins was generally supportive of abortion and reproductive rights, he felt that fetal pain "could outweigh a woman's right to control her own body."

Presumably feeling that the attention generated in the wake of these tweets -- as bloggers such as myself pointed out that Dawkins' position absolutely requires the rhetorical removal of the pregnant woman from the discussion of her rights -- was particularly satisfying, Dawkins decided on Sunday to recycle his old arguments in favor of eugenics with this series of tweets.

This is not the first time Dawkins has hauled out the idea that eugenics might be awesome if people could just get past the whole Hitler thing; back in 2006, Dawkins wrote in Scotland's Sunday Herald that:

Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The specter of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from 'ought' to 'is' and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as 'these are not one-dimensional abilities' apply equally to cows, horses and dogs and never stopped anybody in practice.

So, fine: Dawkins supports eugenics and/or enjoys playing Devil's Advocate for eugenics. Either way, you can either agree with him or not, right? But the problem is that once again, Dawkins has made the deliberate choice to appropriate women's fertility in order to push his ideological agenda, in this case by deliberately linking in vitro fertilization and genetic testing to eugenics as though they are one and the same. He did so by selectively retweeting this response to his pro-eugenics statements:

At the time of my writing this, Dawkins' tweets above have been retweeted 704 times. They've been favorited by 362 people. They've been replied to so many times that I can't begin to manually count, and I don't see a twitter-summary to do the calculation for me, but I would hazard the guess that he had at least a few hundred responses. He chose to retweet only one: the one that made an explicit connection between IVF and his pro-eugenics policies.

Eugenics is the applied science of improving the genetic composition of a population, either by promoting favorable traits (such as Dawkins' hypothetical example of breeding for mathematical or musical ability) or by decreasing unfavorable traits. "Positive" and "negative" eugenics are terms that actually mean something, and not in the "unicorn kittens" and "Hitler" sense: positive eugenics means increasing reproduction among those deemed genetically desirable, and negative eugenics means decreasing reproduction among those deemed genetically undesirable. You will please note that neither of these terms directly relate to IVF or genetic testing of embryos, and that the practice of both can be -- and historically has been -- limited to an assessment of the traits of the potential parents rather than the genetic traits of their embryos.

In vitro fertilization is a process in which an egg is fertilized by a sperm outside the body. The resulting embryo is then implanted into a person's uterus and an otherwise normal pregnancy may then take place. IVF is a major treatment for infertility, and is usually resorted to when all other methods of assisted fertility have failed, since it can be highly expensive, deeply difficult, and terribly painful -- in addition to being far from a sure thing. IVF is also something that I and my husband have been through twice, and each time failed for us. Last January, I pointed out:

... I also want to interrupt my interruption to say that pretty much every media that has ever fictionally portrayed IVF has it completely wrong. IVF is one of the most horrible, stressful, awful medical procedures I have been through. The entire process takes weeks and involves multiple daily injections that you have to give to yourself and which hop you up on hormones so that you release more eggs than you otherwise would in a cycle and which leaves you feeling like giant sore egg basket. And constantly stressed and crying because hormones are powerful things, you have maybe one or two attempts at the whole IVF thing before the exorbitantly high prices become more than you can pay after which you face being Childless Forever, and also ovarian hyperstimulation can also be fatal. So there's that.

What I am saying here is that any woman who goes through IVF once, let alone twice, wants that baby. She fucking [works for] that baby, through liberal amounts of blood, sweat, and tears. IVF babies are not magically-delivered-by-happy-elves babies just because science.

Because IVF is so expensive and difficult and painful, the entire process is set up to collect as many eggs as possible and make as many embryos as possible, because most couples will only have one shot -- or maybe two -- at conceiving through IVF before the money runs out. And since only a few -- maybe two or three -- embryos will be implanted as part of the process (in order to not run the risk of multiple births which can be extremely dangerous) and since the embryos without genetic birth defects are most likely to successfully implant and carry to term, it's not uncommon to perform genetic testing on IVF embryos in order to maximize the chances of a successful pregnancy.

That choice, to perform genetic testing in order to maximize infertile patients' chances at having a child, and in order to allow them to make informed decisions about their pregnancy, is not eugenics. Prenatal diagnoses performed in order to prevent great pain and serious danger to the person carrying the pregnancy, is not eugenics. Genetic testing in order to help the would-be parents select which one of their embryos they think will have the surest shot at a life, is not eugenics. These things are not intended to affect the genetic composition of a population, but are instead intended to help people overcome infertility at the smallest possible cost to their health and finances during a process which is inherently risky and always expensive.

I've been through IVF, and though it didn't work for me and my husband, I'm grateful that it exists. Yet the procedure, like abortion and all other reproductive rights, is constantly under attack. Fundamentalist religious groups claim that it commodifies children and should be made illegal in order to protect those unborn children from the parents who would supposedly commodify them. Personhood amendments would almost certainly make the procedure illegal.

And people like Richard Dawkins deliberately link what is an infertility treatment for individuals to a social movement which purports to judge what is right and good in a population and its children. In doing so, he perpetuates the myth that IVF is a easy-breezy process that people use to create "designer babies" and thus ends up on the same side of the fence as the fundamentalists, insinuating that the vast number of IVF users commodify their children and perform genetic selection not in order to protect their children from being born with fatal diseases, but rather to select for a mythical music gene in order to get a head-start on all the other budding musicians in pre-school.

The similarly between Dawkins and the religious fundamentalists is evident: they both wish to impose their framing of child-commodification on my choices. The only difference between Dawkins and the religious fundamentalists is that he thinks that kind of commodification is great, and suggest that I do too. And I resent that implication, because it makes life so much harder for IVF patients, both past and future, and for IVF children who have to live with the prejudices of the surrounding society.

I want to say this:

I am an infertile woman who went through IVF treatments in an attempt to conceive. Because my husband and I were genetically incompatible, we were not able to create a healthy, thriving embryo; all our embryos stopped growing days after fertilization. Had we not undergone the "controversial" genetic testing -- testing which is "controversial" because of narratives perpetuated by people like Dawkins, which claim that the testing is nothing more than optional eugenics -- we would never have known why our embryos didn't thrive, and we would have spent even more money trying to unravel the heartbreaking mystery.

I insisted on genetic testing over the objections of my doctor because after living a life of constant pain, I wanted to be absolutely certain that I wasn't bringing into the world a person who would never know anything but pain from the day of hir birth. What I didn't choose genetic testing for was in an attempt to try to predetermine my child's life for hir, or to insist that zie's life and future and career and choices be mapped out to my satisfaction beforehand. I wanted hir to be whatever zie wanted to be, and I would have approached hir schooling in the same way I approached hir genetic makeup: as long as zie was happy and healthy, that was all I wanted for hir.

Richard Dawkins can be pro-eugenics all he wants, as far as I'm concerned. I'm not in the business of auditing other people's philosophical notions, no matter how odious I may personally find them. But I am profoundly contemptuous of his choice to reinforce a harmful narrative that people like me -- people who went through IVF and prenatal genetic testing -- agree with his philosophy of engineering children from birth to be precisely what he wishes them to be as adults, or that our painful and difficult choices made in order to ensure our child's health and happiness is somehow part of the same ideology as what he espouses.

Eugenics, as Dawkins defines it, seeks to override the free will of the person engineered by it. Genetic testing, as I experienced it, sought to provide as much free will as possible to the person created after it. And I absolutely reject any philosophy which refuses to acknowledge a difference between these two things.

[Commenting Note: Choices are not made in a vacuum and are not magically exempt from criticism. But please also note that explanations given for choices may not reflect the full or real reasons behind the choice. Please remember that not everyone who chooses prenatal genetic testing wishes to divulge which inherited diseases they might have been screening for.]

NOTE. It is not coincidental that many anti-choicers compare women to livestock. See also:


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