Saturday, April 17, 2010

8th graders discuss genetic engineering: 3-parent embryos, anyone?

Yesterday, I gave my students a journal prompt from a news article I came across explaining that scientists in the UK have figured out how to “fix” embryos with genetic defects. After fertilizing the mother’s egg with her partner’s sperm in the lab, creating an embryo, the nucleus of this (suspected genetically defective) embryo is removed and transferred to the “donor” embryo that has had its nucleus removed. It is believed that this transfer will leave the faulty, defective DNA behind and allow the embryo to grow (if actually implanted in the mother) into a healthy child – a child with three parents (one man, two women). Because of the ethical complications of this process, scientists have not actually implanted human embryos, but they believe they will be able to within the next three years. They’ve already done it with monkeys and are pleased with the results.

I had my students write whatever their thoughts, feelings, or questions were about this topic, and I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of their thoughts. We had substantial discussions (each lasting at least twenty minutes – the longest lasting forty) and the kids were able to share their opinions (some of them WIDELY different from others) without telling each other they were wrong. Would you like to hear some of what they said?

Several of them believed this process was akin to abortion. They felt that removing the nucleus from the first embryo destroyed that particular child. Many said that God creates us and intends for us to be who He wants us to be and that man should not interfere with that at all. Regardless of whatever genetic defect the child might be born with, they didn’t feel science should be part of the process.

I had students who straddled the fence. The process seemed to make them uncomfortable – they didn’t seem to like the idea of science messing around with the construction of a human being – but they did admit to being in favor of it if it would fix a lethal defect. If the child would be born dead or would die soon after birth, they said they would be in favor of the process.

On the other side of the fence were the students who believed that eliminating genetic defects would be good for everyone. They said the child would have a more meaningful life, and they said some parents just couldn’t handle raising and caring for children who are born with genetic defects. They mentioned too the lessened financial burden parents (and society) would carry if these children were born healthy and without the need for advanced medical care and treatments.

There were a couple students who stunned me with their comments. One young man said that he was entirely in favor of the process and took it a step further. He said he thinks women should have to register with the government when they want to become pregnant and should be tested for the possibility of giving birth to genetically defective children. If results indicate they could have genetically defective children, then they should have to go through this process to avoid it.

I kept my own thoughts and comments to myself all day, with one exception. (I didn’t want to influence what they were saying, and I didn’t want anyone to feel inhibited by anything I might say.) The one exception was to this particular student’s comments about government intervention. I asked him where this government intervention would stop. Maybe they would begin by preventing the birth of children with lethal defects, but it wouldn’t be long before they would decide that another “defect” is undesirable, and so is this one and that one. I asked him how long he thought it would be before the government began deciding brown hair and dark eyes were undesirable, as Hitler did. He’s a smart kid – really smart – and it truly scared me that these were reasonable thoughts in his mind. Where are our kids getting these ideas?

The other comment that surprised me was a very logical question coming from a boy that on most days I would gleefully strangle because he can’t stay in his seat and he can’t be quiet. He asked, “Couldn’t the woman who donated the egg sue for custody or visitation?” Pretty insightful, huh?

This post has already gotten very long, and I haven’t mentioned everything we talked about. I think you can see, though, from the samples I’ve shared, that it was a thought-provoking discussion.

Our children do think. They have opinions and lots of questions. I hope they also have people in their lives who will listen to them and talk with them so that we can raise a generation that doesn’t want to dictate – even fears to dictate – what constitutes a perfect child. I don’t want a roomful of students that look and sound alike. I want variety. God save us from Sameness. (The Giver, anyone?)

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