Although feminist bioethicists have critiqued the new reproductive and genetic technologies in general, they have written relatively little on the specific topic of gene therapy. To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule. Mary B. Mahowald reflects in depth on genomic alterations and women in her book Genes, Women, Equality. In addition, Jackie Leach Scully and Anita Silvers have routinely challenged both the reigning boundaries between somatic cell gene transfer (SCGT) and germ-line gene transfer (GLGT) on the one hand, and the standard definitions for genetic “treatment” and genetic “enhancement” on the other. Some traditional bioethicists, such as Eric Parens, have also challenged these same boundaries. But when they have done so, they have neglected, overlooked, or chosen to ignore the ways in which raising the so-called “woman question” can help all bioethicists, feminist or non-feminist, provide better advice about which types of gene transfer should be encouraged and which discouraged.
In the following essay, I first offer a fairly traditional bioethical analysis of gene transfer, with an emphasis on GLGT and other forms of inheritable genetic modification (IGM). I then provide some feminist critiques of this mode of analysis, each of which raises the woman question with respect to gene transfer. Finally, I suggest that if traditional bioethics incorporates feminist understandings about gene transfer into its corpus, it has a better chance of serving the best interests of men and women equally.
As the Human Genome Project nears completion, our knowledge about genes linked to human diseases and defects is growing at a dramatic rate. It is already possible to test embryos for several conditions at the pre-implantation stage (through pre-embryo biopsy) and to test fetuses for even more conditions during the course of their gestation (through amniocentesis, chorionic villus sampling and umbilical cord blood sampling) (Robertson, 1994: pp.155–60). At present, pre-implantation and prenatal screenings focus on severe genetic diseases (Strong, 1997: p. 137). In the near future, however, there will be increased ability to test for mild diseases, late-onset diseases, treatable diseases, propensities for common diseases, and even non-disease characteristics such as longevity, height and body-build (Strong, 1997: p. 137).
Although genetic knowledge of this type may strike us as an unalloyed blessing, ethicists worry that such information might fuel parents' increasing desire for perfect progeny. Up until very recently, parents could not do much to guarantee for themselves the child of their dreams. At most, if their moral views permitted, they could discard a pre-embryo or abort a fetus that tested positive for a relatively small range of genetic maladies, such as Tay–Sachs disease, Down's syndrome and Fragile X (Robertson, 1996).
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