The price of social conformity

It seems rather sad to me that, in an age where it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to discriminate against individuals for any reason in the social sphere, neonates are not, apparently, always to be embraced in the same way.

Pre-birth testing, in which a range of genetic anomalies is screened for in early pregnancy, is not 100% reliable, but is the small percentage of ‘false positives’ an acceptable margin to eliminate non-mainstream presentations? And how much does society lose as a whole, in firstly, our acceptance of the principles of screening for their own sake, and secondly, from the loss of the gifts that accrue to society when we live with and encounter difference?

Ethical questions such as these will not go away any time soon. Meantime, we need to ask ourselves how far we value conformity, and to question how far we are prepared to accept medical screening advances that carry a sting in the tail. How far are we prepared to accept the rights of ‘society’ or ‘medical convention’ to dictate outcomes? How strong will we need to be to resist the pressures of our peers and our families to conform? And what do we lose in our insistence on ways of life that exclude individual traits that happen to occur in a minority of the population?

Is it acceptable, in an age where we pride ourselves on being more tolerant and open, to put certain families and individuals into the spotlight in this way, simply because medical screening is increasingly widespread and risk free? If we are lucky enough not to have such risks running in our families, it is easy enough to say, “Yes, of course…!” but in families where certain traits are well known and recurrent – Huntingtons, for example – is it fair to impose that kind of social expectation?

Individual choices impact on society in surprising ways, and the cumulative effect of individual choices to proceed with terminations of, say, Downs fetuses, may, indirectly cause society to become less robust, less tolerant of difference. Compare the ‘rain forest’ model of life, in which many different aspects live with and among each other, with the ‘plantation’ model, in which only certain traits are encouraged, and the others are screened out as ‘undesirable’ or ‘unnecessary’. I worry that, since we do not know all the relevant variables in this debate, we may be making decisions now that have a significantly adverse impact on social provision and attitudes in the future. If we screen out genetic traits, might we also screen out other traits that we deem less than desirable?

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