Deaf Embryos as Controversial “Product”

A number of blogs have taken note of this report on Genetic Testing of Embryos.

One of the more striking findings of the study has to do with one particular use of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), namely to ensure that the child that (eventually, probably) results from the process is deaf. According to the report…

Some prospective parents have sought PGD to select an embryo for the presence of a particular disease or disability, such as deafness, in order that the child would share that characteristic with the parents. Three percent of IVF-PGD clinics report having provided PGD to couples who seek to use PGD in this manner.

Yes, that’s right: a certain percentage of deaf individuals value their deafness, value their participation in what they refer to as “deaf culture,” and want to raise a child in that culture. Doing so, of course, requires that the child be deaf.

OK, so most commentators are going to ask “is it OK for parents to try to ensure that their child is born with a disability?” Here’s a quick summary of the debate:

On the “con” side:

  • Deafness is, from most people’s point of view, a disability. Children born deaf face obstacles and dangers not faced by children with “normal” hearing. Parents should be trying to improve their children’s lots in lives, not impoverish them.

On the “pro side:”

  • Not everyone thinks of deafness as a disability.
  • It’s up to parents to decide — within very broad boundaries — what’s best for their kids.
  • A kid born deaf due to PDG cannot be regarded as having been harmed by their parent’s choice, because had they (back when they were an embryo) NOT been selected, “they” would never have been born.

OK, so that’s the standard debate.
But this isn’t a generic ethics blog…this is the Business Ethics Blog. From the point of view of business ethics, this isn’t (strictly) about the choices parents make, but about the products and services that private fertility clinics (i.e., businesses) choose to make available. What difference does the commercial aspect make?

Some will say it makes the whole thing worse. After all, it’s one thing for parents to choose what they think best for their kid (even if some of us disagree with that choice); but it’s another thing for some company to profit from churning out kids with disabilities.
Others will say that the commercial aspect makes this all easier. It’s “merely” a commercial transaction. The clinic, as a mere commercial entity, can’t be (much) responsible, because after all, the consumer is king. If the consumer wants deaf babies, the consumer gets deaf babies.

So, from a business ethics point of view, are deaf embryos/babies any different (at a sufficiently high level of abstraction, of course) from other socially controversial products and services? Such as:

  • rap music;
  • pornography;
  • guns;
  • SUV’s
  • fur coats;
  • etc.

In each of these cases, businesses are making money off of something that at least some people think shouldn’t be sold at all, but that other people are willing to defend (and, indeed, purchase).

Is the fact that there’s social disagreement enough to imply that businesses shouldn’t be selling these products? (i.e., should businesses avoid selling anything controversial?) Or does the specific nature of the worry about a given product matter? For porn, the worry has to do with the objectification of women. For guns, it’s increased violence. For SUV’s, its…well, a whole list of worries. And for deaf embryos, the worry is likely a combination of a) concern for the quality of life of the child that results, and b) the “commodification” of babies/reproduction/life in general.

Probably no one thinks that any controversy immediately implies that you shouldn’t sell your product. There are an awful lot of products — including some I’m quite fond of — that are going to be opposed by someone. So, the key question seems to be, what extra obligations (if any) does a well-intentioned company undertake if they decide to market a product or service that is relatively deeply socially divisive?

[Thanks to Rebel Sell for lobbing the hot potato my way.]

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