See the crucial update below. I was assured, several times, that my second son was to be my first daughter. The doctors who told me this had performed certain tests, you see, and these unambiguous, quite scientific tests revealed the absence of that which makes a girl into a boy.
Now this was just more than a score of years ago, a time when medical science was little removed from bleeding and letting diseases run their course without the application of massive amounts of money. But this is hindsight. At the time—in the moment—all of us had high confidence that the tests were accurate. Just as we think the tests that exist now are accurate.
There is in statistics a hoary old mind-twister which we use to tease first-year students. It runs like this. You have just been tested for a disease and been told the test was “positive”, which means the test says you’re in for it. The question is: given this information, and some evidence about the disease and test, what is the probability you actually do have the malady?
We teachers delight when students say “100%”, “99%”, and other high numbers. This makes us happy because these answers are as wrong as can be—and because we love to shock our pupils. The real answer is usually near 10%, or even less. Why? Because tests are imperfect and most diseases are rare.
It isn’t just the rarity of the disease that causes this result. It’s the imperfection of the tests. Even the best ones aren’t that good; certainly not when used in isolation and without the benefit of further tests and other diagnostic markers. Every doctor knows this.
But patients, and students of probability, do not. When they hear a test say that “Things are this-and-such” they believe that things really are this-and-such.
It was reported this week that science, the answer of all things, had invented a new battery of tests which would scan a fetus for, count ‘em, 3,500 genetic “faults.” We are told that some of these “faults” “include Down’s syndrome and cystic fibrosis.”
Pause here, Mr or Mrs Relativist. The word fault is objective; it implies a universal, or at least a universally agreed to, standard. A fault is that which we all agree is a defect, a thing undesired and undesirable. It is that which is to be weeded out. Culled. Or erased.
We would, I hope, react with abhorrence if a scientist had claimed to have developed a test which would identify those—living, walking, breathing—individuals who were deemed genetically imperfect. Which is to say, impure. Because even if the act of identifying those of us who are less than (racial) perfection is not tied to any program to eradicate these impurities from the gene pool, the suspicion that efforts along these lines could at any moment organize is surely historically warranted.
But if it is instead announced that new and improved methods have been invented for genetic weeding of the womb, well, pop the champagne corks! The glorious forefronts of science and all that. Nobody says it, but in these stories the implication is always that killing the genetically faulty before they make their entrance is good for all of us. We would not want to be burdened with that which is less than perfect. Incidentally, good, ladies and gentlemen, is another one of those objective, universal standards.
Previous genetic tests could identify, at best, a few dozen imperfections. Last week’s news pushes that number much higher; and presumably this figure will grow by an order of magnitude in a decade. This means that the fault-lines are ever widening. The inescapable conclusions is that our idea of genetic perfection is growing narrower, ever narrower.
Circle back to the beginning and recall that medical tests are imperfect. England’s Lord Robert Winston remembered. He warned that the new tests would raise “many ethical questions.”
This is British understatement for the truth that many non-mothers-to-be relying on these tests will kill off perfectly healthy fetuses which they believe to be defective. To be, that is, genetic inferiors. In that group of women willing to kill their fetuses and who trust testing, the rate of killing-in-error will be high, because the chance of an error can only increase with the number of items tested.
This, dear reader, is a mathematical truth. The more tests there are, the greater the chance of an error. It is also true that newer tests are more prone to mistake, meaning that as the number of tests increase the chance of an error in killing increases much faster than you would think. Until, that is, it becomes almost certain.
But then, it always was certain.
Update In the same article which quote Lord Winston, we also hear from Professor John Harris, director of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, who has this to say
No potential being has a right to become an actual being — abortion is not a “wrong” to the individual because the individual in question will never have existed.
We would be negligent and reckless if we paid no attention to the health care of future generations and future people. The ability to protect future generations from terrible conditions that will blight their lives seems to me to be an absolute moral responsibility and a duty that we should not shirk.
This is full-blown eugenics; no other way to spin it. “Protecting” human beings from faults by killing them is an argument only an academic could love. And could say and get away with.
I’ll agree with the good professor about one point, at least partially. “No potential being has a right to become an actual being.” Many eggs and most male gametes, which potentially could have been combined to form a human being, haven’t a “right” to be so combined; thus there is no right to exist in this sense.
But the bad professor is quite wrong—he is committing a silly fallacy—by moving from this to saying abortion isn’t “wrong” (notice the scare quotes) because, he is tacitly arguing, the fetus is not an individual. But that, dear ones, is the very point at question: whether the fetus is a human being. It is certainly an actual being of some kind: it is not a potential being. It is a human being, too, at the earliest stages of its life. If you say not, then what exactly is it? At what point and just how—exactly, please—does it become a human being?
The real injustice of it is that even though Prof. Harris argue so badly, he is still collecting a paycheck. For arguing so badly. Yeesh.
Update Worth noting.