Choosing the traits of your children: a genetic testing panel discussion

Trinity’s Genetics Society host its final event of the year yesterday, March 15. A panel discussion entitled Ethics, Genetics & Preimplantation Genetic Testing, this event was led by speakers from four disciplines concerning the area of genetic testing and screening. These included both the ethical and legislation aspects of the issue.

The event began with an introduction from Dearbhaile Casey of TCD’s GenSoc, who gave a brief explanation of topics that would be covered and a quick introduction of each of the speakers. Dr. Kevin Mitchell of The Smurfit Institute of Genetics began the conversation with a presentation aimed at those who study genetics, as well as at those who don’t. Mitchell’s two areas of concern regarding mutated cells were the resulting issues of Cystic Fibrosis and Down Syndrome. Both Cystic Fibrosis and Down Syndrome are quite prominent within the Irish population, with one out of nineteen Irish people carrying the gene.

Mitchell ended the presentation in stating that “it is not a matter of if we can, it’s when”, in reference to the issue of the gene selection process when it comes to IVF treatment and the implantation of embryos. Interestingly, since 2001, the price for genetic testing and screening has decreased dramatically with it currently resting at the €1,000 today within private clinics. This in turn increases the availability of such services.

Next to speak was Dr. Andrea Mulligan, an Assistant Professor of Law at the School of Law as well as a researcher in  the fields of Medical Law and Bioethics. She began by explaining that there is currently little to no legislation in Ireland concerning the issue of human reproductive technologies. This includes established technologies such as IVF. Mulligan was clear in highlighting the problems that Ireland will face in the next few years regarding legislation decision making for future technologies such as gene editing and human enhancement.

Following Dr. Mulligan was Dr. David Walsh, co-founder of Ireland’s largest private fertility treatment unit, the Sims Clinic . Walsh spoke directly about the practical aspect of embryo implantation and what the process involves. Prior to treatments such as IVF, clear and informative discussions are had with his clients. He also explained that it is not uncommon for clients to decline the option of genetic testing in fear of receiving negative results.

Dr. Maureen Junker-Kenny of TCD’s Religions & Theology Department was the last to speak, focusing on the role of ethics in relation to the issue of gene selecting. Whilst Junker-Kenny is an expert in the area, all speakers discussed and faced the ethical issues of genetic predetermination. The question constantly repeated was that of how our society views abnormalities, disease and disabilities. In “choosing lives” and decreasing prices for these services, one could argue that we are further “entrenching” the divides in our Western society. Junker-Kenny concluded with a quote from the 1997 film Gattaca: “We now have discrimination down to a science”.

The evening concluded with a brief Q&A followed by a casual wine and food reception. Such a successful event saw  TCD’s GenSoc ending the year on a high note, one we can expect to carry through into next year.