The ecstasy and agony of prenatal information

By Razib Khan | September 16, 2012 6:34 pm

Slate reposts a piece from New Scientist, Do You Really Want To Know Your Baby’s Genetics? It is arranged as a series of questions which might arise from the new information. For me my frustration with this sort of discussion is rooted in reviewing old articles about “test-tube babies” in major newspapers from the 1970s and early 1980s. Today in vitro fertilization is banal and commonplace, but many of the same concerns were voiced back then which you see cropping up now in regards to personal genomics. My issue is not concern as such, but its inchoate character. It is not uncommon for me to encounter people pursuing postgraduate work in science who express the opinion that “it’s scary,” the “it” being genetic information. When further queried the fear is generally layers upon layers of formless disquiet, some confusion about the specific details, as well as a default stance toward the “precautionary principle.”

With all due respect this isn’t rocket science. There’s no need to be overly general, the issues we’ll face are precise and specific, and often actually implicitly or explicitly enumerated in pieces such as the one above, which nevertheless manage to convey an air of murky foreboding. Unfortunately, not all of the issues are easily resolved, nor are they uncontroversial. For example I think abortion is actually a clear and distinct problem, because most of know where we stand on that. But what about the threshold for what constitutes a genetically normal individual? Frankly, most of us haven’t even really grappled with what that’s supposed to mean (to a great extent, I haven’t, and I probably think about these things more than the normal person). We marry, and we have children. So it’s been back to the dawn of time.

Ultimately this will not be decided by governments or bioethicists, if I had to guess. Rather, it will be decided by trial & error, the choices of individuals, and society’s response to those choices. There is no reason that everyone will take to these methods in the same manner, or to the same extent. Some people want to know everything, and some people would prefer to let the die fly. What’s the harm in allowing both stances, and all those in the middle, to flourish? What’s so concerning about knowing…or not knowing?

For myself, we are looking to the MaterniT21 PLUS test for the next pregnancy. At the least.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal Genomics

Comments (12)

  1. RedZenGenoist

    Congrats on your sanity and compassion for your own offspring, Razib.
    (not being sarcastic)

    Did you know that some states offer free trisomy tests to all pregnant women, and offer free abortions if you test positive, resulting in large, consistent, progressive drops in fx. Downs, despite the inevitable climb in maternal age? What do you think of that, as tax dollars go?

  2. which states??? you mean nations?

  3. RedZenGenoist

    To the extent that Denmark is a nation, yeah.

    Some other countries in the region have programs approaching this, but less strong.

    You can see by the stats that the change in framework (government help, government sanction) massively changes the choices primates make. Primates do whatever authority says is ok, and sanction of choice by authority is implicit here, by them giving you one.

    As a dad and taxpayer, what do you think?

  4. #3, i favor free screening. i would also personally support the state paying for abortion, but that is basically not going to happen in the USA because too many people oppose abortion on moral grounds. i have democratic enough qualms to worry about subsidies to actions/activities which a substantial proportion of subsidizers object to. thought that doesn’t seem to stop our international adventures 😉

  5. Sandgroper

    Side note – one of the universities here has begun foetal genotyping. The response, such as it is, seems to have been “Oh great – progress. Isn’t science wonderful?” Different folks, different strokes.

  6. RedZenGenoist
  7. Sandgroper
  8. pconroy

    @ 7 Sandgroper,

    Yeah, that one thing to love about the Chinese – they are generally a pragmatic people, as am I.

    For me the more info the better, even if it’s potentially bad news – such as I recently found out that I have an almost double chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)…

  9. Sandgroper

    @8 LOL! Only one? I married one, remember 🙂

    Yes, definitely, the more information the better – I couldn’t agree more.

  10. pconroy


    Make that “one more thing” 😉

  11. Charles Nydorf

    The atmosphere of angst is a legacy of traditional (pre-genomic) genetic medicine which took a dark and secretive view of things.

  12. Sandgroper

    @10 Better!

    Not to mention Sandy Lam’s adorable epicanthic folds 🙂


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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