Bioethics News

The last psychopath: using the brain to root out disorder

Eleanor Worthington Cox plays Jessie in Tomcat / Richard Davenport  

It is compulsory for expectant mothers to have their unborn child genetically screened for disabilities or traits considered to be a burden to society. If a genetic “defect” is found, termination is mandatory. Those who refuse to comply face court orders.

This scenario is still science fiction, but for how long?

The subject is tackled in James Rushbrooke’s excellent play, Tomcat, which is currently running at Southwark Playhouse in London.

Twelve-year-old Jessie (Eleanor Worthington Cox) is the protagonist of the play. She is the last human carrying the genetic marker for psychopathy and has been the subject of a research project for ten years. She lives in captivity and is observed by a team of doctors and scientists who want to understand the biological basis of psychopathy. The researchers believe that it is not possible for the environment to save her from her genetic destiny.

Rushbrooke powerfully portrays a near future in which society has traded freedom and respect for humanity for a “healthy” populace, free of disability and disorders. The play raises the question: if we had the technology to get rid of the traits that cause a burden to society, should we use it?

But what counts as an illness or a disability? And is there a value in conserving disability?

We already have pre-implantation genetic diagnosis that, in the UK, can be used to screen for thalassemia, cystic fibrosis, and other genetic disorders. It can also be used to screen for traits traditionally considered a disability, such as deafness.

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.