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Autism, abortion and prenatal screening

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William Crawley | 20:47 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009

einstein-l.jpgThe news that scientists may soon be able to develop a prenatal test for autism, which would allow us to terminate pregnancies where there is evidence of autism spectrum disorders, must lead to a public debate about the ethical and unethical use of that new knowledge. We can expect inevitable and mostly inaccurate comparisons with Nazi eugenics programmes, and the hasty deployment of the phrase "playing God". But this subject requires a calm head and a careful analysis.

The director of the Cambridge University autism research team, Simon Baron-Cohen, is right to call for an ethical debate ahead of a viable prenatal test. Autism is a condition that sometimes blesses the human population with mathematical geniuses and brilliant artists; but in many other cases the condition produces extreme learning difficulties. Professor Baron-Cohen helpfully lays out some of the issues at stake in a public debate here.

Coincidentally, this research is being published just as a new biography of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac suggests that the man sometimes described as "Britain's Einstein" gave evidence of undiagnosed autism. Earlier this year, Michael Fitzgerald, a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin, argued that Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, H G Wells and Ludwig Wittgenstein all showed signs of autism, as did Beethoven, Mozart, Hans Christian Andersen. Professor Fitzgerald believes that "genes for autism/Asperger's, and creativity are essentially the same".

One thing is clear: the test itself is not the issue. A prenatal screening test would not only offer parents the opportunity to terminate a pregnancy, it could also provide an early warning system enabling parents to prepare for the arrival of an autistic child. At present, children often reach the age of two or three before a diagnosis of autism is considered. (A side-note: when I suggest that the test itself is not the issue, I accept, of course, that prenatal testing is always freighted with ethical questions, to the extent that all testing can pose risks for the developing foetus.)

Another thing is clear: the analogy sometimes drawn between autism and Down's Syndrome is mostly unhelpful. These conditions, though sometimes diagnosed together, are different conditions and they affect children and adults differently. The moral argument for termination in the case of Down's Syndrome cannot be simply extended, mutatis mutandis, to autism spectrum disorders. The moral case for termination in the case of autism needs to be made independently. The simplest form of that case would be an argument based on the likely negative impact of this condition on the child's life and the burden the condition could place on the shoulders of the child's parents. But the argument would have to also consider the likely impact on society, as a whole, of removing some extremely creative people from our future. It would also have to consider that as many as one in 150 children could be diagnosed at some point on the autism spectrum, as opposed to one in 800 in the case of Down's Syndrome.

(Note about picture: This blackboard features the handwriting of Albert Einstein, who is thought by some experts to have been autistic. Typically, when autism is covered in the press, the image of a child with a learning disability is often used to illustrate the story. Both images are fair illustrations, but the one I've chosen challenges some common misapprehensions.)


  • Comment number 1.

    How truly evil this is. Almost worse than the notion that we kill children because of their disability is this notion that we save one brand of disable because they might be creative. How dare you William lecture us on drawing analogies with Down Syndrome and telling us there is no similarity with Nazi eugenics. This society is getting sicker and sicker and so called ethicists are beating the drum to its death.

  • Comment number 2.

    "what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism?" (BBC linked page)

    "But the argument would have to also consider the likely impact on society, as a whole, of removing some extremely creative people from our future."

    To be honest my first reaction is that I'm going to have to take a bit of time to get my head around this form of argument.

    Maybe to help this process, someone, particularly someone with a 'pro choice' outlook on life, could explain, in simple terms, why the prospective contribution of another to society should have any, I mean any at all, implications for the decision to nurture (or in the case of abortion not to nurture) the potential of that human being.

    Are we really going to have to debate the idea that Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, H G Wells and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Beethoven, Mozart, Hans Christian Andersen or anyone else we care to mention, perhaps like the kids in our schools, are valuable for any reason other than they are simply themselves. Whether or not they contribute to society is irrelevant.

    Are we really saying that if one is a potential asset to the nation that he/she might live, if not... if they are a burden...

    Let's go back to the second quote again, "But the argument would have to also consider the likely impact on society, as a whole, of removing some extremely creative people from our future.", and may I ask, as respectfully as I can, why do the words "some extremely creative" have to be in it.

  • Comment number 3.


    Most points of view on this blog 'I get'. Even if I don't agree, I get what's being said.

    But I'm sitting here thinking, maybe it's just me, maybe it's late, maybe I need a coffee, maybe I need a double brandy, but did I really read what I just read, or did William just not think through the implications, was he in fact trying to argue against abortion in the case of autism, and then I'm thinking that doesn't really help.

    William I think I really need to ask you directly, what exactly are you arguing here?

  • Comment number 4.

    Clearly any foetus which cannot solve the above equations by the beginning of the second trimester should be aborted. Imagine what a mess the world will be in if we don't stop those kinds of babies from being born. Wars, famine, disease, racism, ethnic hatreds, homophobia, and all kinds of other ills will wreak havoc on human society.

  • Comment number 5.

    'Professor Fitzgerald believes that "genes for autism/Asperger's, and creativity are essentially the same".'

    Dear me, not here as well (this has turned up in the Guardian Theolo... erm, Science section too ;-). Where is the evidence for this implausible belief? Unless Fitzgerald and Baron-Cohen have such evidence, the argument that screening would deprive us of geniuses such as Dirac is bogus: it is the Beethoven fallacy.

    https://www.medicine.tcd.ie/public_health_primary_care/skrabanek/Follies-and-Fallacies-in-Medicine-1up.pdf [p. 44]


    Of course there would be ethical issues associated with a pre-natal test for autism - that is often the case with screening - but muddying the debate with fallacies is not helpful.

  • Comment number 6.

    Knowing that there are so many different degrees of autism - how would the test differentiate between severe or mild?, to think that someone would terminate a life with such a variety within autism itself.. Lindsey

  • Comment number 7.

    Ah, the old sloppery slipe? All of us are arguably on the "autistic spectrum" somewhere - Einstein almost certainly wasn't "autistic", and Dirac almost certainly had a particular high-functioning form of autism known as Asperger syndrome.

    At the end of the day, "autism" is a *phenotype*, not a genotype. We may well find the genetic causes that predispose to it, and technically, we might be able to abort some affected fetuses - we already do. There are several genetic conditions where autism is a major part of the phenotype - Rett syndrome, Angelman syndrome as examples.

    The great "autistic geniuses" are in a very different category from the majority of individuals affected with autism, and it is exceptionally unlikely that treatments (and prenatal tests) targeted at this latter group will affect the occasional occurrence of the former. It's an invalid form of reasoning to lump them all together.


  • Comment number 8.

    Some very interesting comments already here. Peter, I haven't made a pro-choice or a pro-life argument here; I've merely set down some of the issues that would have to be examined in a public debate. Magwitch makes very important points about reasoning in medicine which I hope to put to some of those arguing for what he suggests is the Beethoven fallacy. And Helio's point about the difference between phenotypes and genotypes is worth exploring further too. Sassy makes a point about the effectiveness of the test in recognising degrees of autism; I can't answer that question, but I will pursue it. Thanks for these very helpful comments everyone.

  • Comment number 9.

    Following the recent decision by the computer manufacturer Dell to relocate its assembly operations to Poland while maintaining its support base in Limerick I was interested to see so many commentators remark that mass manufacturing was now a thing of the past in Ireland. Many went on to say that the country's future lay in the knowledge-based economy and its plentiful supply of well-educated young people.

    This is self-evident: a minimum wage and highly regulated business environment cannot compete with low-wage unregulated countries in basic manufacture. The move away from production has been progressive and recent events have only made obvious what is a well-established trend across both Ireland and the UK.

    An interesting side-effect of the death of traditional industry has been the growth of a totally otiose stratum of society. We now have considerable numbers of people condemned by their level of intelligence to economically unproductive lives, without meaning or purpose, marginalised from society in general, socially deprived, prone to higher than average levels of substance abuse or dependence on medication, to depression and other mental illnesses.

    Our society believes that we have a duty to alleviate suffering, to mitigate distress, to shield our citizens from hardship and inconvenience. In this context should we widen the debate? If contributing to society is a consideration in determining who should live, should middle class parents be offered the opportunity to screen (when available) their off-springs for economically viable intelligence levels? If we care about children and the sort of lives they are to live should we go further? Should we consider the forcible sterilisation of the lumpen proletariat?

    I very much fear that, extreme as these ideas may sound, given the way in which society is moving it is merely a matter of time before they begin to be aired more widely.

    It is not often I agree with Smasher but I concur with his assertion that the proposals put forward on this thread are pure evil and would echo his emotive but accurate naming of British and American abortion practices on another thread as a holocaust.

  • Comment number 10.


    I think I pretty much agree with you. There is some lazy thinking going on here on the part of the press. Diagnosing Aspberger's, and lumping Autistic Savants (who are not always mathematicians) together with everyone in the ASD group is ludicrous. We are looking at something like a "family resemblance" of disorders, stemming from an inability to form a "theory of mind". The discovery that one physical cause underlies every case of ASD would be surprising indeed.

    (Uta Frith is worth reading on this. As opposed to "The Curious Incident..." etc.)

    There is a statement by Baron-Cohen in the Guardian article that I can only assume is taken out of context. Terminating Downs-Syndrome kids is OK because they lack the insight of some Autistic kids? Shome mishtake shurely? That doesn't sound like Baron-Cohen. Most people who have worked with both types of kid would find that horrifying.

    It may be worth asking what it is about conscious human beings that we find valuable and worthy of protection. Leaving the debate about abortion and euthanasia aside for the moment, and ask if we really can rank an individuals worth to others.


  • Comment number 11.

    No William, you haven't made a pro-choice argument - just a pro-choice statement. You attempt to undermine the obvious link to Nazi eugenics by mentioning it first.

    Whenever someone calls for an ethical debate you know they are pro-choice - it's simple and obvious. The ethics are easy - it's wrong to kill an innocent child whether they have autism, Downs, are in Nazi Germany or New Labour England. If you think there is something to debate then you're already lost.

  • Comment number 12.

    Sorry, that 1st paragraph was a bit jumbled. I'm trying to say that the difference between an Autistic Savant, someone diagnosed with Aspergers, and someone with Autism can be huge. We are talking about a spectrum of disorders and the spectrum is broad.


  • Comment number 13.

    gveale says: "There is some lazy thinking going on here on the part of the press. Diagnosing Aspberger's, and lumping Autistic Savants (who are not always mathematicians) together with everyone in the ASD group is ludicrous."

    + This is not about lazy thinking in the press. baron-cohen is the researcher who makes the link between autism and mathematical genius. Listen to his interview on the Today programme or read his argument in the link. This is not the press, it's the UK's leading autism researcher who is saying, essentially, be careful about what we do with these tests when they become available. Incidentally, gveale, no one, so far as I can see, is saying that all geniuses are autistic or that all autistic people are geniuses; only that some autistic people are geniuses and, therefore, aborting autistic embryos could eliminate some geniuses in the future. The professor is right to raise a debate about the use of technology in the future. I applaud him for raising these ethical issues. Too often, scientists wish to press ahead with technological innovations without proper ethical scrutiny.

    As for smasher's claim that anyone who calls for a moral debate must be pro-choice; that's too ludicrous to consider seriously. This professor is raising a public debate because he is concerned that terminations may be permitted.

  • Comment number 14.

    by the way ... Nazi eugenics. It's a nonsense analogy with modern scientists in democracies acting within the law and following professional guidelines. Smasher regards every doctor who participates in a legal abortion as analogous with a Nazi doctor killing off unwanted groups. There's a difference between abortion in the UK today and a programme of genocide or eugenics. A massive difference ethically, historically and even religiously.

  • Comment number 15.

    I haven't made up my mind on this one yet. I am not completely pro-choice or completely pro-life. I think we should make judgements ion a case by case basis when it comes to abortion. A woman has to make the choice in some appalling circumstances, such as rape or in cases where doctors say she may be carrying a very severely disabled child. I don't think it is right for me to tell that woman what she shoudl do in serious cases. It's different if she wants to abort because she doesn't fell like having a child right now, or would prefer to have a boy rather than a girl, etc.

    In those cases, i think the law should restrict the abortion choice.

    In this case of autism, I would like to know more about what a future test could show. Would it show that a severe case of autism is present? Or a mild case? If doctors told me that we were looking at a severe case, I would have to think and pray very carefully because I dont want to put a child through that kind of suffering and isolation. Even saying that, however, I can't understand the details ... what would a severe case look like, and what kind of suffering would it involve.

    I am very pleased to see this leading expert bringing the public to a point of debate about all of this. Let's have some of these questions answered.

  • Comment number 16.

    Godwin's Law, yet again in force.

  • Comment number 17.

    William - I wonder...

    As you mentioned that you expected comparisons with Nazi eugenics in your lead article and Smasher responded in post # 1 (effectively confirming that he would make the analogy), there was certainty not probability from the very beginning of the thread.

    Perhaps there is a cyclical variant of the law?

  • Comment number 18.

    portwyne the issue is whether those Nazi examples are even relevant to this case. I don't think they help matters at all. The doctors involved here are not Nazis and the parents facing the decision in the future about the use of a prenatal test are not Nazis. Let's stop this Nazi language. It just begs the question, it's irresponsible, and it's offensive. Those like Smasher who are fully pro-life are entitled to their views, but they get us no where by throwing around offensive illustrations of their point.

  • Comment number 19.

    What??!! I'm not criticising Baron-Cohen for saying some mathematical savants are Autistic. That's a total misreading of my post. I'm criticisng the press for reducing a broad and complex Spectrum of disorders to one "label". And then, as Helio pointed out, conflating genetic predisposition with cause. I tried to clarify that in post 12 as the paragraph you referred to was vague. You could at least ask for clarification before leaping down my throat! Sheesh!
    Anyone who works with different students on the spectrum will be aware of the wide variety behaviors associated with ASDs. This is before we consider comorbidity (thanks again to H for pointing out the connections with other conditions).


  • Comment number 20.

    GV I'm confused. Who is suggesting that there isn't a SPECTRUM of behaviours? The post refers to Autism SPECTRUM. We all know that there are a very large variety of disorders associated with autism and we know that this diagnosis can lead to various outcomes. I think the press coverage has represented all of that fairly well, mostly by raising questions for debate. I repeat that I am still trying to work out my own thinking on all of this, but let's keep the focus on the debate. If you have examples of press coverage that's reduced this debate to silliness, let's have your example. At the moment, you are punching out at unnamed press.

  • Comment number 21.

    The Nazi's did have a well developed Euthanasia programme. There are disanalogies (it was Eugenics based on the priciple of racial hygeine) but there are also analogies (even beginning to discuss an individual's value to society is downright creepy).
    Now if we are talking about a woman's right to bodily self-determination or reproductive control, versus a right to life, then I don't think the Nazi analogy helps.
    But if we start talking about the social value of aborting unborn children with a predisposition to Autism, then I think it is appropriate to look at historical antecedents.


  • Comment number 22.

    Guys it was William who introduced the reference to the Nazis, not me so he can hardly appeal to Godwin's law.

    He introduced the subject of eugenics - not abortion in general - so it obviously makes sense to refer to other examples of eugenics. Wearing a white coat and operating within the law doesn't make something right - that's exactly what the Nazis tried to claim at subsequent trials.

    Why are people so afraid of mentioning the Nazis? Could it be that their consciences are pricked. If you say something like "abortion in America has killed more people since 1973 than the Nazis" that is simply a fact. You could equally say, more than Stalin or Mao, or car accidents. The reason why the analogy with the dictators applies so well is that so many people were blind to their actions at the time (and still now where a restaurant is happy to call itself "Maos") and the same is true with abortion.

    My assertion that calling for a debate makes you pro-choice may not be scientfically based but is anecdotally true. Look at the previous instances. It's almost always a prelude to someone trying to bring in euthanasia, or cloning, or gay marriage. The suggestion of a debate implies an unsettled question, a need for change on some issue. And if you look at say the practice of pro-lifers wanting to change the abortion law - they never say, "let's have a debate on viability" - they know the ethics, they don't need to debate it.

    Getting into discussions about the spectrum of autism and whether it is linked to brilliance and how it might or might not be compared with Downs would be fine if the context were not the killing fields.

  • Comment number 23.

    gv ... point taken on the analogies and disanalogies. that makes a lot of sense.

  • Comment number 24.


    Stop being so persnickety. In post 12 I wrote - "We are talking about a SPECTRUM OF DISORDERS and the spectrum is broad."

    Perhaps I missed the subtleties of the Guardian article. I felt that Baron-Cohen's comments were broken up in a less than helpful manner. To read -
    "We should start debating this. There is a test for Down's syndrome and that is legal and parents exercise their right to choose termination but autism is often linked with talent. It is a different kind of condition."
    several paragraphs before his position is clarified is less than helpful. It makes it sound as if the link with talent is the key issue, and that's not Baron-Cohen's primary concern (which becomes clear when you piece together what he says in other paragraphs).

    "It found that high levels of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women was linked to autistic traits such as a lack of sociability and verbal skills in their children by the time they are eight." There's a tad more to autism, don't you agree? Don't you think that it might have been interesting to know why those with an ASD sees the world differently?

    A better job- with nice drawings which always look good in papers-

    In any case you don't need to agonise over the technology. It need not be linked to abortion.
    "The National Autistic Society says some of its members think a test to predict autism could be useful in helping parents prepare and get support for their child. At the moment many children are not diagnosed for two or three years which is a source of frustration. But none have said they wished it had been possible to have a termination."

    Aspergers is typically diagnosed between 4 and 10. If I remember correctly.
    Forewarned is forearmed.


  • Comment number 25.

    Persnickety realtes to the critical post, not the nice post (:

  • Comment number 26.

    My son is very autistic and I write about our lives and the politics of autism and disability on my blog. I've a post up on the Guardian's coverage of this discussion here:
    The points I raised apply equally to other discussions of the topic.

    As I wrote earlier, why is it necessary to find a way to prevent people who perceive the world differently, people like my son, with all their strengths, problems, disabilities and talents from existing? Even if this theory was to lead to a prenatal screening tool, which I very much hope it doesn't as it would have little sensitivity and specificity, need we discuss the right of autistic people to be born? It's also irrelevant that autistic people can have special talents that benefit society and that if there was a way of telling if a child could grow up to be (sarcasm) a useful, clever autist or a wasteful, stupid autist with absolutely nothing to offer (/sarcasm) the test would be more useful. Heck, if everyone had to prove their usefulness to society to be allowed to exist, the world's population would take a big drop.

    I am in agreement with the National Autistic Society which,
    "welcomes research into all areas which may further our understanding of autism, but it is vital that the information gained from any research is handled responsibly. The rationale for research into autism must always be to improve the well being of and increase the opportunities for people affected by the condition."

  • Comment number 27.

    GV you are agreeing with Will that the test itself is not the issue, but what people will do with the test results.

    I still can't really see your point about press coverage abusing the facts in this story. I was very pleased that the Guardian gave this story a page one yesterday - it certainly merits that coverage.

  • Comment number 28.

    Smashy, I think Will was just getting his Godwin in first ;-)
    Minor point here - termination of pregnancy is never justified on societal grounds (in the Act or anywhere else) - it is always based around the consequences for the family, especially the mother. Will is quite correct in that links to Nazi Germany are inappropriate.

    What may happen is that for *some* forms of autism, a prenatal genetic test may become available (it already is, for example in Angelman syndrome), and families will quite legitimately exercise their choice. but families who choose to continue an affected pregnancy, like in Down syndrome, should be perfectly at liberty to do so, and the child thus born should be treated as a valued member of society, in the same way as anyone else.

    It's not rocket science.


  • Comment number 29.

    Your post on https://thefamilyvoyage.blogspot.com/
    also raises some of the concerns that I have about the media coverage. I tutor a student with Aspergers/ high functioning autism. Your blog looks very, very helpful.


  • Comment number 30.

    Helio - suppose we find a prenatal test for homosexuality - would you say families could quite legitimately exercise their choice?

    The distinctions you make between individuals, families and society aren't clear cut in reality. Families chose to kill their Downs babies because the state/society tells them they can, in fact tells them they are good citizens for doing so. People don't make these choices in isolation.

  • Comment number 31.

    Smashy, that is a mischaracterisation of my post. I was merely saying that what determines whether a termination is performed or not is a family issue, not a societal issue - we are not "eugenically" trying to "cleanse the race" (which is a Cnutian notion anyway, aside from being silly in principle). I would strongly disagree with any societal pressures (real or imagined) to terminate any pregnancy, but the option should be available to those who wish it. There are of course societal pressures in the other direction - to continue pregnancies with, for example, anencephaly, where the fetus is likely to die in utero or shortly after delivery. Depends on the social milieu, I guess.

    You seem to have taken all this as me suggesting that any "undesirable" trait should be regarded as legitimate grounds for termination on family request. I said no such thing, although perhaps I should have clarified that by "some forms of autism" I meant the severe disabling types, rather than the high-functioning milder types.

    Maybe I should have made myself clearer.


  • Comment number 32.

    "You seem to have taken all this as me suggesting that any "undesirable" trait should be regarded as legitimate grounds for termination on family request"

    Aren't you opening the way for that though?

    "I would strongly disagree with any societal pressures (real or imagined) to terminate any pregnancy"

    Yes, but what do you suggest DOING about such pressures.

    To my mind, there is always going to be societal pressure with regard to any such course of action. I would much prefer that pressure was on the side of life than termination though.

  • Comment number 33.

    If I lay my cards on the table, on this issue I imagine there is little discernible difference between my position and that of Smasher. I am absolute for life: I can conceive of no situation where one human being is morally justified in setting out to deliberately end the life of another, and that includes the ending of the life of an unborn child.

    The selection of embryos or foetuses for life or destruction on any basis whatsoever is eugenics and is utterly utterly repugnant to me. If we value human life, I would argue, we should value it in all its forms and all its wonderful variety. When we begin to feel we have the right to determine what is a life worth living for another person, when we even mouth the notion that a person's value to society might be a consideration in allowing them life then we are well down the road to a materialist view of human life, a road whose nadir even the Nazi's failed to plumb.

    I have argued before against the weight our society places on the intellect, un-curbed it will destroy us. The human mind was made to think and to feel: dispassionate arguments are not merely inhumane they are inhuman. When we talk about important matters it is not only legitimate, it is essential, that we engage our emotions. The associative power of language is one way in which we do this and to evoke memories and analogies is an important tool in awakening our whole brains to the issue we are considering.

    The issue currently under consideration is the future of our species - we owe it the employment of all our faculties.

    If anyone wants to feel the horror of a society which has travelled to the end of this road, a society of commodity humans, they should read Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" - the sense of nausea it inflicts on the reader is, in my experience, unparalleled.

  • Comment number 34.

    Hi William, thank you for your answer. I understand that it is unfair to expect you to be drawn into further debate and so please read the following as general comments.

    I understand too that this is not a argument for or against abortion and was careful to respond to those aspects of this story which concerned the value we place on others and how we do this.

    It is clear from the quotations I referred to in post 2 that the presumed decision making process with regard to termination might include factors such as the "likely impact on society".

    A couple of observations, this point of view can only be understood as one which is predicated on the concept that abortion is already a valid choice. Two, it is unavoidably introducing into this debate criteria for the nurture or non-nurture of life based on an individuals supposed productivity.

    The idea that "removing" those who are not "extremely creative" is less of a moral dilemma than "removing" those who are, is directly implied in the statement, and I'm saying clearly that the right to life has nothing to do with one's supposed 'value to society' and everything to do with intrinsic worth. Humans are valuable because they are human. As I said, do we have to debate this?

    And one more thing, invoking a 'Godwin’s law', 'I've pulled out a plum' response when it was referred to in the original post isn't foresight, it's just an (unsuccessful and defensive) attempt to ward off criticism. In other words it's avoidance!

  • Comment number 35.


    I'm catching up on this post, but as I understand it, William was simply doing what he normally does on his blog: setting out the various discussion points under this topic and asking some pertinent questions. That included a reference to "Nazi eugenics"; so, what's to argue about? I'd have thought there was much more meat to dive into on this one.

  • Comment number 36.


    You're quite right, the Nazi issue is an aside, a notable aside, but an aside none the less.

    The 'meat' is the measuring of individuals on the basis of their assumed contribution to society. It is the single, clear, arbitrary and thoroughly unacceptable aspect of the discussion. Start with the premise that human beings are of variable worth and watch any concept of society fall apart.

    So here is the issue, repeated again, which I raised in post 2,

    " "But the argument would have to also consider the likely impact on society, as a whole, of removing some extremely creative people from our future."

    I ask, as respectfully as I can, why do the words 'some extremely creative' have to be in it? "

  • Comment number 37.

    PW, what is it about human life (biologically) that you value, while you (presumably) would not attach the same value to a similar gestation embryo of a chimp or a cow?

    After all, there would not be much difference in complexity at many stages. Are you saying there is something special about the human embryo even at that early stage? Or if you are saying that it is special because it is "human", why are you not extending the same respect towards scrapings from inside your cheek?

  • Comment number 38.

    I think this guy is the brother of the actor that plays ali g and borat. Its sad that this is the first thing that comes to my mind as i read this.

    Personally I think this is a very disturbing prospect, the more things complicate the more i see the advantages of taking a hard line and restricting freedom. Maybe i should read the article though before i write anymore...

  • Comment number 39.

    Helio I am not sure that biologically there is very much that I value. I believe that human life is almost certainly the random product of an unguided process of evolution by natural selection - you and I baby ain't nothing but mammals.

    My intellect tells me there is nothing more to it than that and I accept that it is entirely logical that unguided evolution should, given advances in genetics, give way to guided evolution as man remakes himself according to his own imaginings. Unsatisfactory developments could be culled and inferior stock removed from the gene pool. I can not see any good reason why this should not happen and, given that, in science, whatever can be done will be done, I rather suspect this is the future we have ahead of us.

    I do not, however, allow my intellect to rule my mind: it has to co-exist with my feeling heart and my response to ethical issues will always reflect the totality of my being. I feel with one hundred per cent certainty the absolute truth and relevance of what John Donne said when he penned: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

    It is not the biology of an embryo which affects me it is the symbolism. To concur with the wilful destruction of human life is destroy a part of oneself.

  • Comment number 40.

    Mgnbar, in fact he's his dad. Simon Baron-Cohen gave the world Ali G., yes.

    And yes, it's sad that this is the first thing that came into your mind.

  • Comment number 41.

    If you take all the Autism,ADHD,Tourettes,Aspergers etc into consideration and the supossed test(complete dream world)it would mean that 75% of the pregnant mothers babies would be aborted ..now tell me whats diffrent to the tests the SS were doing to the JEWS in the consentration camps during the world wars?? Infact why ont they do what Mengele was doing with Jewish twins test on one and kill the other to see what the actual damage was done by his vaccines?? What more would you expect from Fitzpatrick who cant even give his son proper bio-medical treatment as seen in Thoughtful House in America .

  • Comment number 42.

    As far as I know, the famous Baron-Cohens are cousins.


    Apart from the unhelpful hyperbole about Nazism, you also confuse a reference to Fitzgerald (Trinity College Dublin)with Fitzpatrick (presumably the London based GP and author of the excellent "Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion.")

    He does have an autistic son but is wise enough to reject the unproven, often dangerous and fraudulent claims of the autism treatment sellers like Andrew Wakefield's Thoughtful House.

  • Comment number 43.

    William – with Professor Baron-Cohen - wants to set out the terms of the debate but does so exclusively in utilitarian terms. He wants us to consider the likely impact of autism on the child, the parents and on society as a whole. The status of the foetus and the rights and wrongs of killing any foetus (likely to be useful or not) are not considered at all. Hidden in the attempt to lay “out some of the issues” is the unspoken assumption that the decision to abort should depend on whether the foetus is likely to make an unusually valuable contribution to society which would outweigh the likely burden of bringing up someone with autism. Replace the word “autism” in the previous sentence with others (e.g. depression, obesity, schizophrenia, alcoholism) and the eugenic nature of the idea becomes obvious.

    Professor Baron-Cohen is similarly blinded by his utilitarian assumptions. He blandly asks, if the test “was used to 'prevent' autism, with doctors advising mothers to consider termination of the pregnancy if their baby tested 'positive', what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism?” What else would be lost? A human being would be lost. Possibly a difficult, unproductive, human being but a human being none the less.


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