Bioethics Blogs

Stars, Bars, and Embryos

At first glance, the embryo-screening technique known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the confederate flag seem to have little in common. But as a twelve-year old article by bioethicist and disability studies pioneer Adrienne Asch reminded me, both carry symbolic power as indicators of societal hierarchies and perceived human value.   

PGD is used with in vitro fertilization to test eight-cell embryos for “serious” diseases like cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, and Tay-Sachs disease before transferring them into a patient’s uterus. It’s also used to create “savior siblings” and to produce children of the sex that parents prefer. And one fertility clinic briefly offered it to control for cosmetic traits like skin complexion, hair color, and eye color.

The confederate flag – a lightning rod of debate following a Supreme Court ruling and the Charleston massacre  – is viewed by some as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage and by others (a view with which I agree) as a symbol of a racist oppression, a relic that demonstrates that a cruel and painful history is alive and well.  

The ongoing debate about both PGD and the confederate flag often positions intent as the sole arbiter of meaning.  In other words, if I raise the confederate flag because I strongly believe in states’ rights, does the flag still serve as a symbol of racism?   (This argument of course ignores the fact that the history of states’ rights is so deeply marred by racism that the two cannot be disentangled.)   Or, if I opt not to implant an embryo because PGD reveals a high likelihood that the fetus would develop Down syndrome, can I simultaneously claim to believe that people with disabilities are entitled to lives as full and equal members of society?  Do egalitarian beliefs about race or (dis)ability mitigate the flag or testing’s symbolic power?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.