New Genetic Technology Could Help the Pro-Life Cause

What if embryonic DNA could be extracted from amniotic fluid and information from that DNA could be used to build a high probability composite of what the embryo will look like as a 2-year-old, a 6-year-old and beyond?

DNA phenotyping, also known as molecular photofitting, is a process of predictive modelling linking genetic traits and their typical manifestations. It sounds probabilistic, and it is, but it is highly specified and multi-factorial. DNA phenotyping employs a genome-wide association study (GWAS) approach, in which hundreds of thousands or millions of single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) are tested for their association with each trait of interest.

Parabon NanoLabs offers forensic DNA phenotyping services for U.S. and international law enforcement. The Wikipedia entry on DNA Phenotyping includes the following accounts of law enforcement publishing DNA phenotype composites:

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  • On January 9, 2015, the fourth anniversary of the murders of Candra Alston and her three-year-old daughter Malaysia Boykin, police in Columbia, South Carolina, issued a press release containing what is thought to be the first composite image in forensic history to be published entirely on the basis of a DNA sample. The image, produced by Parabon NanoLabs with the company’s Snapshot DNA Phenotyping System, consists of a digital mesh of predicted facial morphology overlaid with textures representing predicted eye color, hair color and skin color.
  • On June 30, 2015, NBC Nightly News featured a DNA phenotyping composite, also produced by Parabon, of a suspect in the 1988 murder of April Tinsley near Fort Wayne, Indiana. The television show segment also included a composite of national news correspondent Kate Snow, which was produced using DNA extracted from the rim of a water bottle that the network submitted to Parabon for a blinded test of the company’s Snapshot DNA Phenotyping Service. Snow’s identity and her use of the bottle were revealed only after the composite had been produced.

Even now in the relative infancy of this technology, DNA phenotyping is proving useful to law enforcement in ascertaining the identities of suspects and unidentified victims, but as greater numbers of SNPs can be identified and sorted, composite models will quickly become much more precise and powerfully predictive and this will have significance well beyond law enforcement.

In his First Things article “Facing the Unborn,” Richard Stith sees great hope for the use of DNA phenotyping for particularizing and personalizing the unborn child at the earliest stages. Because up to this point we haven’t been able to see the distinctive individual characteristics of an unborn child at the embryo stage, we may view the embryo as a categorical abstraction rather than a particular person. Stith writes:

As pro-lifers we must be honest with ourselves and admit that there are limits to our ontological imagination, and that these limits are a barrier to full respect for human life, especially very early in pregnancy when the unborn child does not yet look much like the rest of us. However, there are ways to push back the limits and expand our imaginative understanding.

We can recognize a caterpillar to be a developing butterfly. Even so, it seems nigh impossible to think of a caterpillar as a particular or individual butterfly in the process of its development. But this is how we have to imagine embryos if we are to do justice to their human development. We normally think of other creatures generically, as just a certain type of insect, for example, but we think of humans as specific individuals, albeit ones whose individuality may happen to be unknown to us. Because this embryo in the photo cannot (except arbitrarily) be ascribed any particular characteristics, it cannot easily be thought of as a developing individual.

Stith goes on to argue that DNA phenotyping makes apparent the previously hidden distinctiveness of each individual preborn child in the earliest stages in much the same way that ultrasound has revealed the distinctiveness of individual preborn children at later stages. Undoubtedly Professor Stith is right, DNA phenotyping holds forth great promise for revealing the individuality that is such an essential dimension of recognizing the humanity and personality of preborn children at the earliest stages. Many, many first trimester babies will be spared from abortion because their parents will be moved by a deep parental longing or just plain curiosity to want to see the face of the child within. Maybe this will be the tool that reconceptualizes the distinctiveness and personality of human beings from the moment of conception. But it may also lead in other directions.

Bioethicist Timothy Murphy writes:

If we start to use DNA phenotyping at embryonic stages, it may well be that some parents will pass over one embryo in favor of another because of the expected appearance of the future child and adult. They will do so for reasons important to them (“I want my child to look like me”) and for reasons they represent as important to the child (“I want my child to have the benefits of good looks”) … knowing what a child will look like might be of special interest to people relying on donor gametes in order to have a child. It is one thing to have a clinic’s gung-ho description of a sperm-donor, but it would be another thing to visualize what a child conceived with that donor’s sperm might look like.

Though the number of conceptions facilitated by reproductive technologies is small, it is not insignificant. Many people have a friend or relative who has used some sort of fertility treatment, and this personalization of infertile couples and our culture’s amazing openness about even the most intimate things combined with the all-pervasive marketplace mentality in which everything, including children is commodified have deeply changed the way we view children and parenting.

Health Day reports: In 2013 … almost 175,000 in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles led to the birth of slightly more than 63,000 babies, compares with just over 165,000 IVF cycles that led to the birth of slightly fewer than 62,000 babies in 2012.” Babies conceived through fertility treatments account for more than 1.5 percent of children born in the United States, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. As well, there are more than 400,000 frozen embryos in storage across the country.

Contraception, chemical abortifacients, the long-standing legalization and the broad frequency of abortion, fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, the suspended animation of frozen embryos, ultrasound imaging, amniocentesis and other means of prenatal diagnostics and now the dawning possibility of DNA phenotyping of embryos have together radically transformed our culture’s understanding of begetting children. Children have become a commodity and consumer choice has for some time been a foundational principle.

And how we see our children is of course a reflection of how we see ourselves. We may be the most existentially insecure generation in history. Most American’s alive today were born after the legalization of abortion. If you were born after 1973, you could have been aborted. Your existence from the moment of conception was not an absolute good, protected by law. Your very life was good and worthy of protection only if your mother chose to see it as good. The goodness of you was not an absolute good, but was contingent upon your mother wanting you. This has created a foundational insecurity, and it is one of the main reasons we have become increasingly relationship averse.

The 2012 U.S. Census reported that for the first time in history “single adult living alone” is the most common household type in America. Marriage rates have plummeted, but so too has the number of couples living common law. Pornography has been a major diversion for male erotic desire and is certainly easier than relationships with actual human beings, but at a deeper level a major underlying factor is the insecurity of being someone who could have been killed, but for whatever reason, wasn’t. Most Americans alive today are abortion holocaust survivors, with all the psychological baggage that entails.

In the very near future predictive DNA phenotyping of babies at the embryo stage with be widely available and with Professor Stith I hope it will help us see the particular and distinctive personality of each child from the moment of conception. The technology is there, the only question is do we have the eyes to see?


  • Joe Bissonnette

    Joe Bissonnette teaches religion and philosophy at Assumption College School in Brantford, Ontario where he lives with his wife and their seven children. He has written for Catholic Insight, The Human Life Review, The Interim, The Catholic Register and The Toronto Star.

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