The black woman, a 37-year- old citizen of a Third World country whose partner is a white European, gave birth last year, following a course of fertility treatment. She believes her child will have a better future because it is white, rather than of mixed race. Doctors at the Bourn Hall Clinic, Cambridge, are also preparing to implant a white woman's egg into a black mother, whose partner is a man of mixed race.
The details of the Italian and British cases differ somewhat: the Cambridge decision was prompted by a shortage of egg donors from fertile members of the woman's ethnic group; whereas the Italian woman appears to have exercised a simple social preference. One thing however is consistent: in vitro fertilisation (IVF) is not an easy procedure, with many disappointments and falsely raised hopes. No one goes through the process unless they are powerfully motivated to have a child and, once that child is born, to love it dearly.
Unquestionably, both couples will want what they think is best for their children. Who is to gainsay them? Who is to interefere in decisions made by responsible adults about their own reproduction?
Quite a lot of people, to judge by the immediate reaction. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which licenses all 'test-tube baby' clinics in Britain, said that the Italian case would not have been permitted in the UK. Dame Jill Knight, chairman of the Conservative backbench health committee, reportedly described the matter as 'plain and unvarnished genetic engineering, and as such must be unacceptable'. The Roman Catholic church opposed interference with 'the natural processes'. The chairman of the British Medical Association's ethics committee was reported in lurid, if hackneyed, terms 'the lid on Pandora's Box is now open'.
Yet why is it wrong for a black woman, in a society in which racism is endemic, to choose to have an egg that will develop into a white child implanted in her womb? The decisions by the two couples touch on three issues where society is at its most hypocritical: race, sex and the rearing of children. The two cases also highlight a conflict of responsibilities for the doctors who offer fertility treatment: should they reflect the mores of contemporary society or respect the autonomy of those they treat, whatever decision their patients arrive at?
The technology that brought all this about is not new. The world's first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, was born in Oldham, Lancashire in 1978. In the subsequent 16 years, thousands of other conceptions have been brought about artificially.
The second point is that, in each case, the child will be genetically unrelated to its mother - and this would be true irrespective of whether the mother had chosen a black or white donor. Hundreds of women have already given birth in this way to children not genetically related to them. So what is it about skin colour that has provoked such a reaction in this case?
It cannot be based in biology. Compared to most of the animal kingdom, humans are genetically remarkably homogeneous. There is less variation between human beings than among chimpanzees, for example, even though humans are incomparably more numerous. And to confound traditional views of how humanity is divided into 'families' or 'racial' groups, geneticists have found that there is greater variation between individuals within one racial group than across the racial divide. To put it crudely, white men can differ more from each other than a white man from a black man. Differences between individuals such as skin colour or facial shape are probably controlled by only a very few of the human body's 100,000 or so genes.
Far from being an affront to nature, the actions of the mother in Italy represent an assault upon our social prejudices and assumptions. Yet it is social pressures, the ingrained racism, that have caused the woman to make the decision she did. And society finds it more difficult to cope with a collective moral responsibility than to pass moral judgement on individuals.
Contrast, for example, how careful society has been to regulate the behaviour of those few individuals who seek to benefit from the new technologies of IVF with our collective carelessness in eradicating widespread racism and racist attitudes. The moral implications of the new technologies were the subject of anguished public debate; a committee of the great and the good, chaired by Baroness Mary Warnock, examined the issues exhaustively; there was a turbulent Parliamentary debate as to what laws should regulate these technologies. Parliament established the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which has the delicate task of ensuring that the application of what is technically possible conforms to society's expectations of what is morally acceptable.
Parliament has also legislated, under the Race Relations Act 1976, to make overt forms of racial discrimination illegal. It has set up a Commission for Racial Equality to 'work towards the elimination of discrimination and promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups generally'. But it is hard to believe that such a response is anywhere near adequate to the scale of the problem.
Sensitivity to race is a characteristic common to most cultures. While laws can prohibit overt acts of discrimination, consciousness of racial difference is an attitude of mind that cannot be eradicated by government decree. That such attitudes can be deep-seated and simultaneously intangible further complicates consideration of these two cases.
Flora Goldhill, chief executive of the HFEA, said that, had a British clinic wanted to carry out a similar procedure to the Italian one, 'We would have had very serious reservations about treatment solely on the basis of preference of outcome. We are opposed to sex selection, and we are opposed to this for similar reasons.'
Sex selection and race selection are only the first hurdles society has to face. With the dizzying progress of biomedical science, the genes that control height, intelligence, even the pace of human ageing, will become accessible, and such genetic knowledge could be applied to alter the characteristics of individual human beings. In practice, such things will be sufficiently difficult that we will never quite enter a Frankensteinian world of 'designer babies'. But the old adage that children were a gift from God to be accepted unconditionally no longer holds true, and has not done since the availability of reliable contraception via the Pill in the 1960s.
Scientists and medical practitioners by themselves are not equipped to predict and explore the moral and social implications of their work. For this reason, one of the world's leading genetics researchers, Professor Daniel Cohen, director of the Paris Centre d'Etude du Polymorphisme Humain, has persuaded his centre to set up the world's first department dedicated to the study of the ethics of the new genetics. The department, which opens later this month, will also try to stimulate as much public debate as possible.
But the problem is that we may focus on the wrong issue. It is easy to identify the latest scientific 'breakthrough' and talk about the genetic technologies in isolation. It is society which shapes the way they are applied; social pressure has brought the Italian mother to think it better to bear a white rather than a mixed-race child.
Mrs Goldhill remarked: 'To say that a child is going to be more loved because it is a boy or a girl, black or white, is something we are not happy with. A child should be loved for itself.' Yet the problem highlighted by the Italian case is not that the mother will love her white child any less than she would have loved a mixed-race one, it is the rest of us who are at fault.
Tom Wilkie's book 'Perilous Knowledge', which explores the ethical issues behind the new genetics, is published by Faber & Faber, pounds 14.99.
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