Facing the unborn If we could somehow visualize…

Facing the unborn:

If we could somehow visualize facets of a still undeveloped embryo’s own future, our forward-looking intuition would become much more powerful. Here Kwame Anthony ­Appiah has made a very useful suggestion. He thinks Americans debating abortion should consider that “those dead fetuses could have been . . . their children’s friends.” Every friend is a unique individual. To see an embryo as a possible friend is thus to envision it as a human individual, even though nothing individual is yet known about him or her.

How much more transformative it could be if we could analyze an embryo’s genetic structure and conclude, “This embryo will grow up to be a petite Asian woman with considerable artistic talent.” Or better: Suppose a computer could someday produce images from her DNA and show us her likeness—even her very face—as a newborn infant, a little girl, a teenager, or an adult. Such an advance in technology might be as important as ultrasound for the pro-life movement, turning public opinion against the destruction of embryonic human beings. Real-time ultrasound images of fetal faces have already brought about more respect for prenatal life; how much greater might be the effect of faces with open eyes. Could we easily “look an embryo in the eyes” and decide to annihilate her?

This is not science fiction. The technological possibility of such images appears to be upon us. Forensic investigators are already using “DNA phenotyping” as a supplement to artists’ sketches in developing rough visual profiles of suspects, especially where no one has witnessed a crime but traces of unexpected DNA have been left behind. A recent story in the New York Times about the use of this technology contained examples of computer-generated faces paired with their actual counterparts. The resemblances may not be perfect, but they’re striking. Researchers are seeking to improve the accuracy of DNA-based visual profiles by adding ever more genetic variables.

If adult DNA can lead to a sketch of that person’s face, surely gestational DNA (obtained in a non-injurious way—from the placenta, for example) could be used to sketch the future face of an unborn child, for the content of the DNA in our cells changes but little during our lifetimes. We are, perhaps, on the brink of a new advance in the pro-life consensus, one not unlike that brought about by the now widespread use of ultrasound technology.   

Faster, please.

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