The Pro-Choice Case Against Mandatory Gene Editing

Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader reflects on our ongoing series:

There’s a circle I absolutely cannot square:

I am a strong advocate of abortion rights. I believe women have the right to conceive or not conceive and to abort a pregnancy for almost any reason. Somehow, the intuition which causes me to adopt that position doesn’t map to the context of genetic manipulation. I am entirely comfortable with laws which punish women and men for procreating negligently by failing to use genetic screening and manipulation. I could try to put a veneer on this and reconcile the two views, but I don’t think I can do so honestly. I wonder any of your liberal readers face the same dilemma?

If you have an answer for how to resolve those two views, let us know. This reader spells out the conflict:

In order to be pro-choice, one must hold to the supremacy of the mother’s rights vis-a-vis the fetus. The mother gets to decide what happens with her body, notwithstanding any moral claims we might contemplate assigning the fetus. In that case, it’s hard to see how a pro-choice person could, with ethical consistency, advocate the compulsion of a mother to undergo a procedure for the health of the fetus, which is certainly what gene editing would entail. The mother gets to decide what happens with her body, after all.

Of course, the pro-choice person could strike a balance between the rights of the mother and the rights of the fetus. Carrying a baby to term is such a gargantuan responsibility that a mother cannot fairly be compelled to do it. But gene-editing procedures, if they don’t pose health risks, would not be nearly as burdensome, and so a mother could be fairly compelled to undergo them. Many pro-choice people, however, would not be open to any kind of balancing of rights between a mother and a fetus.

Similarly, this reader believes any attempt to punish parents for declining to edit genes would be in irresolvable tension with a regime of legal abortion into the second trimester:

Forcing gene editing before viability would be untenable since an abortion could be performed if chosen by the mother, essentially rendering the idea moot. In fact, since the fetus is not viewed as a “baby or child” before 24 to 28 weeks, it would seem impossible under current law to legally require gene editing of a non-existent “baby or child.” So then the question becomes: Can we force gene editing after 24 to 28 weeks, when a fetus becomes viable? Of course, we would first have to prove gene editing at that stage of development would be effective and beneficial to the fetus/child/person (or perhaps to society), no small task.

And we would also have to consider if the same gene editing would be effective and beneficial after the birth of a baby. At that point, if parents refuse gene editing, a court could intervene and appoint a guardian if a judge determines that the best interests of the child (or society?) are not being met.

But if parents are punished for declining to genetically manipulate, another reader asks, isn’t the logical conclusion a legal regime where traditional procreation is criminalized?

The corollary to your point is that reproduction is also only allowed via medical intervention. Simply having sex and getting pregnant will not be acceptable. I honestly don’t see that. Natural sex is too ingrained in our makeup and is part of healthy relationships.

Will genetic-risk testing become mandatory? And what happens if a person becomes aware of a substantial chance of producing a child with a serious genetic disease even through voluntary genetic testing—are you also suggesting that these people be arrested if they decide to have natural sex and pregnancy occurs? That sounds like a police state to me.

But that is my point.

There is precedent here in adults with Down syndrome being allowed to marry and have children. There have been vigorous attempts to discourage this—some of which were clearly illegal, as the courts have found. Yes, those children may well have a higher chance of suffering the same problems, and there is a significant cost to the society in allowing it to happen. But is the cost to society worth the controls that would need to be created? And where do you draw the line? As soon as we go down that path, we inevitably get to the concept of who should be allowed to live and reproduce.

Another reader follows that path, fearing gene editing could lead to the targeting of gays:

Say in the future, science can determine with a reasonable degree of certainty whether a person’s gender identification matches their biological gender. Or say geneticists could identify someone who has a high probability of being homosexual.

Should or would we allow parents to abort or modify individuals who had these gene expressions, if their goal was to “eliminate” homosexuality or gender identification disorders? If that possibility existed, would the civil rights standing of homosexuals that they were born this way still be valid?  

I believe the ability to edit the genome will make both political parties reevaluate their views on abortion, the absoluteness of science and a whole range of ethical questions that many think are currently settled. I find it scary. I could honestly see certain religions, or even the bulk of mothers/fathers, deciding to eliminate or modify a fetus they felt could be homosexual. How could society stop that?