The World from Berlin 'When Is a Life Form Worthy of Life?'

Many worry that screening embryos pre-implantation, during fertility treatments, opens the door to gender selection and designer babies. But a German court on Tuesday decided to allow the practice. Commentators say that the ruling throws up more questions about genetic selection than answers.

A German court on Tuesday decided to allow pre-implantation genetic diagnostics -- a decision not without its critics.

A German court on Tuesday decided to allow pre-implantation genetic diagnostics -- a decision not without its critics.

The case before Germany's Federal Court of Justice on Tuesday was anything but straightforward. It dealt with the genetic tests performed on embryos produced via artificial insemination prior to implantation in a mothers womb. But at its core, it dealt with the very origins of life -- and with the question as to which embryos should be allowed to live, and which should not.

The tests are known as pre-implantation genetic diagnostics or embryo screening. Often, such tests are used to determine the viability of the potential fetus and to determine if genetic defects from the parents have been passed down or not. Many see such tests as a way to avoid abortions later, should the resulting fetus be found to have defects.

This case centers on a doctor in Berlin who had done tests for three couples with reason to believe that their offspring may have genetic defects. He then only implanted those embryos which did not exhibit deficiencies. The others were left to die. Knowing full well that such a procedure could have legal implications, the doctor turned to the courts for clarity.

Gender Selection?

On Tuesday afternoon, the Federal Court of Justice ruled that such procedures were not in violation of Germany's Embryo Protection Law. The law foresees up to three years in prison for those using embryos in a way that does not promote their survival, such as scientific research. The court found, however, that because the ultimate goal of pre-implantation screening is a healthy pregnancy, such tests are not in violation of the law. Furthermore, similar tests on embryos in the womb are allowed -- tests which sometimes result in the mother choosing to abort.

For many, the issue isn't quite as clear cut as this. They fear that allowing PID clears the way for so-called "designer babies," or babies chosen for certain desired characteristics. In addition to genetic defects, for example, embryo screening can provide information about gender -- potentially leading to gender selection, say critics.

German commentators discuss the court's decision on Wednesday.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"There are a number of arguments that make a sober discussion as to the pros and cons of (embryo screening) virtually impossible. One of these arguments says that it creates the pre-conditions for the creation of designer babies. Blonde and blue-eyed, made to order, in other words."

"The case decided on by the Federal Court of Justice shows what the debate is really about. It is about couples who would like to have children but who have reason to be concerned about possible genetic defects, some of which are much worse than Down syndrome. It is about mothers who, for a lack of screening, have to wait until the embryo in their belly grows tiny hands and feet -- a fetus which, should the feared genetic defects then become reality, they may legaly abort. And it is about doctors who seek to protect people from traumatic experiences -- experiences which can shatter both relationships and emotional stability."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The Embryo Protection Law sought to prevent exactly that which the Federal Court of Justice has now chosen to allow: Namely the selection of "good" and the correlative destruction of "bad" embryos. With good reason. The selection of embryos involves much more than merely increasing the success rate of artificially implanted pregnancies or that of preventing the later abortion of a presumably handicapped fetus. Embryo screening means certain life forms are not allowed to exist at all. And that opens the door wide open to judgments about which life forms have value, rather than just determining their viability."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"It is imperative that we decide where we stand on the increasingly exact fetal diagnostics tests available. We must closely consider which pre-existing conditions in the parents make screening their embryo acceptable. We must define which forms of selection we do not want. Gender selection must be shunned as much as any attempts at achieving genetic perfection. At the same time, we need to limit the rapidly multiplying diagnostics available during pregnancy. We need clear rules for the entire pre-natal period."

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Artificial insemination has allowed us to dramatically increase the age at which women can have children. Furthermore, the risks facing advanced-age pregnancies -- particularly genetic defects such as Down syndrome -- have been radically reduced using new diagnostics technologies."

"But the door which was opened yesterday can also lead to darkness. Humanity has entered a place where there are no identifiable limits. When is a life form worthy of life? Does humanity even have a role to play in that question? Where does humanity end and business begin? But the question of all questions is: Should humans be allowed to do things just because they can?"

-- Charles Hawley


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