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Stumbling through the garden of life

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In Western cultures, in most Eastern cultures -- in fact in almost all cultures -- family lineage is traced through the male line of descent. The father's ancestors, the father's descendants, form a continuous stream of DNA that proclaims the family's presence in the world today, in history and in the future.

It is also basically stuff and nonsense, as every woman knows. The only cultures that have any guarantee of a continuous stream of DNA up and down the generations are those that trace their lineage through the mother. Everyone knows, every time, who the mother of the baby actually is; the child's paternity, on the other hand, is pretty much an act of faith.

Even so, this instinct is so deeply rooted that one suspects it is genetic rather than cultural. "It's a boy!" are the words that almost every man wants to hear when his woman delivers her first child.

For most Canadians, "It's a girl!" works just as well -- "It's healthy!" works best of all -- but that's a particular cultural thing that is not shared by everyone. Neither has it been consistent through history. In Europe and Asia at one time and even still today, babies that didn't meet their parents' requirements or were simply inconvenient were left out in the elements to die.

We are more sophisticated than that now, although the results are the same, and we have the technology to tell us just about everything about the baby long before it is born. Most pertinently in this case, we can tell what sex the baby will be very early on in the pregnancy, and that is causing a moral problem, according to Rajendra Kale, interim editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

(Or at least he was interim editor until this week, when he was informed that he would not get the editor's job. Whether or not this has anything to do with controversial editorials he has written -- another article outraged medical administrators when it argued for the abolition of parking fees at hospitals -- no one will say. Coincidence, perhaps.)

In the current issue of the journal, Dr. Kale argues that the ability to identify the sex of a fetus early in pregnancy can encourage abortions, particularly when the fetus is female.

His research suggests that Asian immigrants to Canada are more likely to abort a female fetus than the general population for cultural reasons -- for example, Indian immigrants with two daughters are 50 per cent more likely to have a boy as their third child than is the national norm, a statistical anomaly he thinks may result from gender-inspired termination of pregnancies, or feticide, as it is called.

With its one-child per family population-control policy, the ratio of boys to girls, of men to women is remarkably disproportionate in China, where abortion is almost as freely available as it is in Canada and where parents look to their children -- or, more exactly, their child -- to care for them in their old age.

Dr. Kale suggests that prospective parents not be told the sex of the fetus until the third trimester, when abortion becomes more problematic.

Some multiculturalism advocates see this as racism at worst and racial stereotyping at best, and it has also been denounced as an infringement of a woman's right to know so that she can exercise her right to choose.

Dr. Kale's initiative is unlikely to go anywhere in contemporary Canada -- it offends too many politically correct sensibilities and the problem it addresses isn't that big just yet. What that means is that "It's a girl!" might not be heard as often as it used to be in the corridors of Canadian hospitals.

Medical research today is truly the Garden of Good and Evil.

Thanks to it, infertile women can become pregnant. Because of it, unwanted babies can -- metaphorically -- be put out on the Prairie to die.

Thanks to it, we live twice as long as our ancestors did just a few generations ago, which means we have twice as much opportunity to live in pain.

Thanks to medical research, or because of it, depending on your point of view, you can almost order your baby from eBay now. Gender is just the beginning. Genetic research can tell prospective parents if their children are predisposed by their DNA to any number of diseases, illnesses and conditions that would produce a baby who is something less than Daddy dreams of. Genetic modification, which is just down the road, might mean every baby will be perfect in her parents' eyes.

Recent studies, for example, show that intelligence is largely determined by DNA, as are mental and emotional dispositions to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Genetic testing can also be used to determine predispositions to diseases such as Huntington's (Lou Gehrig's disease), breast cancer, ovarian cancer, Alzheimer's disease and cystic fibrosis, to name a few. If we could identify all those conditions in the womb, or shortly afterwards -- what difference does a year or two make? -- we would have a country full of Canadians who, while fewer in number and predominantly male, would be mostly hale and hearty.

It can only happen in Canada, because Canada is the only nation in the world that has no law to protect the unborn from being killed and no law to protect those lucky enough to survive the pre-birth screening process from being tabbed as genetic misfits -- "Tom is predisposed to Alzheimer's" -- as they stumble through the garden of life.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2012 A16

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