November 17, 2012

the danger of tmi.

For those of you who aren't up to date with the slang, "tmi" (short for too much information) is a phrase used when a person is describing a certain situation or thing in overly articulate and graphic detail. For example, when your friend decides to fill you in on the intricacies of her cat's digestion issues, you could appropriately interrupt her with an urgent "TMI! Please stop talking, oh please stop."

Anyway. I'm not here to talk about the weird habits of felines, but on the far more important issues of scientific advancement, baby genomes, and Down Syndrome... and how having too much information forecasts dangerous change in our culture's moral and ethical standards.

As a prelude: Wayne and I like having little tea/coffee breaks on weekend afternoons or weeknight evenings after work and school is done for the day, and we'll often listen to the charming strains of Al Mohler's voice over the internet waves as we sit and sip. Albert Mohler serves as the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and produces a five minute podcast called The Briefing which provides "a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview" (We highly recommend having a listen!).

On a recent podcast Al talked about baby genomes -- more specifically the considerable headway that genome researchers have made over the last few years. For those that don't know, a genome is the complete set of genetic material of an organism and contains all the biological information within DNA needed for that particular organism to live and develop and grow (that's my non-scientific definition so it's probably not exact... sorry guys). Knowing the contents of a baby's genome can tell us all kinds of things, from the baby's gender to different health issues. Ultrasounds and blood tests offer a great deal of information and these tests are often used to screen in utero babies for things like heart problems and Trisomy 21 (a.k.a. Down Syndrome).

In tests where results return as positive for something like Down Syndrome, parents have the option of continuing with more invasive testing and can proceed to amniocentesis, a test in which amniotic fluid is withdrawn from the uterus in order to examine the baby's chromosomes. Studies show us that only 2-3% of women proceed past the initial basic screening test, and out of those women, 70ish% of them choose to terminate their pregnancies after receiving a definitively positive diagnosis for Down Syndrome (got my info here). Yes, I know. Stats are stats, stats can be misleading, and stats don't always show what's really going on... but I think we can safely say that there are indeed a great deal of babies being aborted based on the results of diagnostic testing.

Now imagine if you could know everything about that wee little baby safe in the womb -- everything from future hair and eye colour, disease and cancer development, athletic and intelligence aptitude -- everything. An article in MIT's Technology Review tells us that this is very much a possibility in the very near future. New studies show that simple blood tests can be used to completely decode a baby's entire genetic makeup. Though there are obviously good and positive and wonderful ways to use this information (like identifying and treating diseases before they can progress), the weight of power we could wield is almost unimaginable. Our culture's moral and ethical responsibilities would be put to a serious test. In this world's eyes, having a baby with Down Syndrome is not ideal -- so given the exact genetic information, what would stop parents from trying to engineer their ideals in even finer detail? "Hey Bobby, yeah, you had three older siblings, but we terminated the pregnancies because the oldest had Down Syndrome, the second was predicted to be diagnosed with leukemia by the age of 16, and the third was just... well, let's just say he was going to be two bricks short of a load. Then you came! Genetic perfection. But, no pressure bud."

Yes, I know, that's a tad overdramatic. But let's be real here -- when this diagnostic testing comes into play, what is there in place to stop parents from aborting their genetically imperfect babies?

Absolutely nothing.

"Come on Suzanne," you say. "No one would abort their baby based on potential academic performance." My response? I seriously hope not. But I would also say that women have aborted their babies for far lesser reasons than that. It's a woman's right to choose, correct? And having a kid who couldn't figure out their multiplication table would just be so inconvenient, but more importantly, too hard on the poor kid. The loving mother is just saving him from academic humiliation, that's all. We wouldn't want to have our kids develop character through hardship or anything like that. That would be silly.

In a time where "being yourself" is so embraced, where diversity is worshipped like a god, where individuality is shoved down our throats, where the word "tolerance" is shot around like a paintball -- the irony of this situation makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. You can't have it both ways, world. You just can't.

The thought of what we could lose (and already have lost) is horrifying. I realize I'm projecting a state of mind onto our culture that hasn't yet come to fully exist, but I'm just going by what I've seen, and to me, it's just the natural unfolding of moral and ethical deterioration.

If we lived in a time and culture where imperfection wasn't so taboo and where convenience didn't outweigh the life of a child, I would be completely overjoyed by the furthering of MIT's research. Yes, I'm extremely glad for the lives it will save and the people it will help, but the potential for much worse is there too. I suppose the danger isn't really in having too much information -- but more so what we do with it.

And what would our Uncle Bill say about all this?

"I was born that way." 

And we wouldn't change him for anything in the world. 


  1. An amazing blog post Suzanne! I couldn't agree more!
    Thanks for writing this

  2. Great article Suzanne, came across this this morning. Thanks for your insight

  3. Thanks for such an articulate piece of writing, Suzanne. Powerful and thought-provoking. I hope many people get the chance and take the time to read this.

  4. I so enjoyed reading this!! Keep it up :)

  5. If you haven't already seen it you should watch the 2009 movie 'Anita'. We found it at the library. I think you would like it.