Coining Perfection

On May 28, 2013, the perfect human being was born in Philadelphia.

The infant’s name is Connor. His perfection is genetic. His parents had conceived 13 embryos in vitro. But before implantation, they wanted to eliminate any embryos with genetic defects. The relatively advanced age of the parents had raised concern about the increased probability of fetal abnormalities. A clinic in Oxford, England, scanned tissue samples from each embryo, using a new method called next generation screening. The scan revealed that only three of the embryos were free of chromosomal defect. Connor was the lucky flawless embryo chosen to be implanted and gestated in his mother’s womb.

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Connor is undoubtedly a consolation for his parents, who had long sought to bear children by other means, and concern for children’s health is laudable. Nonetheless, the birth of the perfect child has its ethical costs. Presumably, the embryos with chromosomal abnormalities have been or will be destroyed. NGS adds a new weapon to our arsenal to eliminate people with disabilities from the population. Eugenic abortion is increasingly used to destroy bearers of Down syndrome before birth. Currently in the United States, approximately 80 percent of these fetuses are aborted during pregnancy. Carrying the telltale extra chromosome, Down syndrome embryos can now be discarded at the starting gate.

Dagan Wells, the English specialist in NGS, confidently predicts that the method will become economical and routine in the near future. Scanning the entire genotype of the embryo will prevent the implantation not only of embryos with chromosomal imperfections but also of those that carry genetic markers linked to Alzheimer’s or heart disease.

At the Main Line Fertility Clinic, where the child was conceived, Michael Glassner admits that widespread use of NGS might go well beyond health concerns. “You can have a very scary picture painted if you talk about height and hair color.” In a society that tolerates sex-selection abortion and runs a burgeoning market for human eggs culled primarily from college-age women with robust health, high I.Q.’s and athletic prowess, the search for the genetically perfect will brook no limits. The slow and the plump need not apply.

The media celebration of our new genetic standard of perfection tends to obscure the ideals of human perfection that were commonplace in the classroom and the pulpit just a few decades ago. The hunt for the perfect genetic structure has replaced the ancient quest for moral heroism and personal sanctity.

One of my consolations as a philosophy professor has been the opportunity to introduce students to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. They welcome Aristotle’s theory of friendship as an antidote to the nihilism of the sexual hook-up culture. But more and more of them find his concept of perfection baffling.

Aristotelian perfection is not a biological given; it cannot be engineered into existence by mechanical means. Rather, it is the slow, precarious fruit of freedom as the moral agent cultivates the virtues of justice, prudence, courage and temperance against the counterweights of vice. Perfection lies at the end of a personal journey, not in its microscopic start. For many students, this concept of perfection as a hard-won moral maturity has become a cipher.

In a recent final examination, one student summed up the general bewilderment: “I don’t think Aristotle is serious when he says that to be perfect you have to cultivate all these virtues. Who wants to be magnanimous? What does that word mean anyway? He’s kidding, right?” In our quest for biological perfection, the Hellenic ideal of moral perfection has become an enigma.

Even odder for our society is the vision of perfection embodied in the Gospels: “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure laid up for you in heaven” (Mt 19:21). Pope Francis is certainly on board. But how many of our contemporaries can comprehend an ascetical concept of perfection that prizes material dispossession, love of the poor and spiritual abandonment? Further, how many of us truly believe that the slightest trace of such evangelical perfection is worth more than all the fault-free genotypes in the world?

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Bruce Snowden
4 years 11 months ago
So, Connor born May28, 2013 by way of what I call original selection linked to genetic rejection (the rejected babies-to-be thought by some as of no consequence) in Philadelphia, the “City of Love” is the “perfect child” genetically. Well, check him out at Fifteen to see if he’s involved in juvenile distinction, or juvenile extinction killing his peers with the “knives of snobbery” just for starters, a real thug on the rug kind of kid. I hope not. I hope it works out well for him and this world of ours . But look at what happened when God tried it so to speak! I mean his highly graced Original Selection of Adam and Eve , taken I suggest from the already existing gene pool and involving of necessity genetic rejection, of all the others. Adam and Eve we call them, our Original Parents of and in the up-and-starting Family of God, working its way through the OT to the NT where in Christ in its highest perfection evolved the ultimate Family of God, the Church! Very theologically and philosophically challenging, but exciting days ahead for the Church and our world! I wish I could be around to add my two cents to all that’s coming, but I’ll have to be content to watch it, hopefully, from the Land of the Living!
Christa Beranek
4 years 11 months ago
I suspect that it would be a great service to read stories about the very difficult decisions faced by parents who are infertile or who have inheritable genetic disorders by people who are involved in pursuing the vocation of parenthood, rather than from someone who is involved in it in a limited and academic manner. The anecdote presented at the beginning serves as a fine foil for a discussion of genetic versus Aristotelian ideas of perfection. However, it does a disservice to parents involved in extremely wrenching and complex situations, in part by assuming what a parent considers perfection. For some, perfection would be an infant who would not die shortly after birth, or who would not be miscarried. I think that authors in America magazine could present their case against IVF and genetic screening, if that is what they would like to do, in a way that is much more in tune with the considerations that parents have and to the actual conditions under which people even being to consider genetic screening. My point is not to argue over the morality of whether or not to pursue reproductive technologies, but to point out that for most couples who have any difficulty conceiving a child, flip considerations about height, hair color, and athleticism are not at issue, and to characterize parents this way is uncharitable and largely, if not entirely, untrue. I would love to read a considered option from a parent about the morality of conceiving a child who will probably have a painful or fatal genetic problem and about how to think about that situation from a Catholic perspective. Couples facing these situations are dealing with difficult scenarios, not simplistic ideas of perfection. There is not much that I have found to help couples with these issues from a Catholic context in a way that will both help them make decisions and help provide spiritual support (in, for example, a case where a couple decides not to pursue assisted reproduction and therefore not have children).

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