Preventing breast cancer before birth

A new proposal in Britain could allow women with a family history of the disease to screen embryos for susceptibility.

Published May 9, 2006 2:30PM (EDT)

Whoa. There's a mind-blowing story in the Guardian today about a proposition on the table in Britain: allowing women with a family history of breast cancer to use IVF technology to screen out embryos with genes that might make them susceptible to the disease.

It's called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, and if you think it sounds a little bit like "eugenics," you're not alone. Britain's Human Embryology and Fertilization Authority is scheduled to discuss the topic on Wednesday, and it's likely to be a rather rowdy conversation.

Ten U.K. clinics are currently licensed by the HEFA to do this kind of embryonic prescreen in cases of rare, fatal genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis. According to the paper, the screening process "entails removing a single cell from the fertilized embryo once it starts to divide in the laboratory. If genetic tests on that cell are normal, the embryo is implanted into the mother's womb and the pregnancy continues normally. Unhealthy embryos are discarded."

Breast cancer is a trickier issue than cystic fibrosis, however, since genetic predisposition is not a guarantee of getting the disease later in life. Then there's the fact that it's treatable for many women, and can be prevented by mastectomy.

Proponents of the IVF screening process argue that it will prevent pain and suffering later in life. Simon Fishel, the managing director of a group of fertility clinics, told the Guardian, "If families would wish to eliminate the threat of serious cancer from their family they should be at liberty to do so." And 47-year-old Joan Finlayson, who just completed nine months of chemotherapy, radiation and surgical treatments, said, "I would do absolutely anything to prevent my daughter from having to go through what I went through."

And of course that makes emotional sense. Wouldn't we all want to keep our children from enduring pain, especially the kind that, it turns out, is preventable through science?

But this gets into some very hinky territory, since, of course, if these kinds of procedures did get the green light, very few expectant parents would be able to afford them. So the wealthy get to have cancer-free offspring while the poorer continue to take their chances? As if the survival-of-the-fittest model hasn't already become more like survival of the richest.

And of course it's not the kind of idea that would stop at breast cancer. Should it be approved -- and even if it's not -- it won't be long before people will be clamoring for the process in the prevention of every conceivable kind of disease and chink in the genetic code.

And isn't it just a little scary to think where that would lead us?

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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