The Quandary: Savior Siblings v. Human Dignity

Judie Brown
February 17, 2011
Reproduced with Permission

A little less than a month ago a baby boy was born in France, which of itself is not really big news. The reason why he was born, however, makes his birth shocking news - though the practice that led to his birth has been growing in popularity for many years.

This particular baby, "Umut Talha, whose name in Turkish means 'hope,' was born Jan. 26 at a hospital in Paris. The boy was 'designed' through in vitro fertilization and genetic selection to cure one of his siblings of a serious genetic disease that causes anemia and requires repeated blood transfusions." Thus the term, "savior sibling" applies to Umut and explains why he was created in the first place.

To their credit, the French bishops were not celebrating the birth of this child; they expressed serious concern, not about his existence, but rather regarding the manner - and the flawed reasoning - upon which his creation was based. According to the bishops,

To want to cure a brother in humanity honors man. … Many people dedicate their lives to this! To support parents in their suffering who have a seriously sick child is a duty of society. We understand their anguish and their hope in medicine.

However, to legalize the use of the most vulnerable human being to cure is unworthy of man. … To conceive a child to use him - even if it is to cure - is not respectful of his dignity.

Such utilitarianism is always a regression.

Indeed, it is a direct assault on the human rights of the human being prior to birth. And though the center of this most recent controversy is a newborn baby, the first question one has to ask - in a long series of ethical challenges - is this: If this little boy was pre-selected based on his genetic identity and potential compatibility with the sibling who is grievously ill, what happened to his embryonic siblings who were not a "perfect match"? One has to presume they were killed, as that is what genetic selection means - choosing which one will survive.

One writer erroneously opined that the label "savior sibling" was created by the French media as Umut's story was told. But the term itself has been used before and has a sordid history that predates the birth of this particular baby.

Some writers suggest that the earliest case, involving a girl named Anissa Ayala, whose leukemia was going to take her life if a bone marrow donor was not found, is the actual beginning of what would come to be known as the savior sibling practice - begetting one child for the express purpose of helping an already born child to survive. In this case, Marissa was conceived by her parents, tested prior to her birth and a determination made that she would be a suitable donor. At the time, June of 1991, there were already 40 recorded cases employing the same strategy, though at that time creating embryos in the laboratory and testing them prior to implantation (preimplantation genetic diagnosis [PGD]) was not in vogue.

PGD came into use around the end of 1999. From there one might say that the "savior" syndrome became the beginning of an untimely end for those embryos who do not qualify!

In fact, in May of 2004, Medical News Today reported that, according to a survey, "Most Americans approve of using genetic testing and selection of embryos to make sure a baby will be a good match to donate blood or tissue to a sick brother or sister."

While I would venture to say that "most Americans" have no clue that what they favored involved the killing of embryonic babies who did not measure up to genetic requirements, it's probably safe to say that such a fact wouldn't bother most of them. We live in a society where it has become increasingly popular to tolerate a little bit of evil in order to do some alleged good even when that evil kills people.

The pro-life movement, on the other hand, is defined by its principles and by a love and respect for all life. And we understand that once a suggestion is made in any profession by any group of people that a particular category of human beings is expendable - be they petri dish residents or children created by an act of criminal rape - the struggle for protection of human dignity and human rights is lost.