This is a tricky one, isn’t it? And yet – before a prenatal test for discovering autism is discovered – surely this is the right time to be discussing the issue. Far too often, scientific and medical breakthroughs with moral ramifications are left in a heap to be dealt with later. And eventually they end up being retrospectively sorted out, after a trail of people have become entangled in having to figure out their own way through these thickets.
Firstly, do we accept that autism is a disease? Hm. Not sure about that one. For starters, it encompasses a spectrum of disorders from fairly mild social unawareness to the extreme and desperately distressing complete lockdown of any form of communication. 60% of severely affected autistic people never learn to speak, while many remain doubly incontinent and unable to dress or eat unaided. So at what point do we decide that a person on this spectrum is ‘diseased’, rather than mildly incapacitated?
And if we do have a prenatal test for autism, will it be able to differentiate between those people completely trapped within their bodies – and those who only prefer their own company? Because if it can’t – then surely, we cannot possibly use it. Especially as these sorts of tests have a tendency to throw up more false positives than false negatives.
And if we decide that – yes – we are quite comfortable with the notion of accidentally ending the lives of perfectly healthy embryos, the prospect of terminating mildly autistic individuals may also have more far-reaching consequences. As anyone who has ever watched Rain Man can testify, there is a significant percentage of autistic individuals who are particularly gifted in specific areas. I’m aware this is a massive generalisation, but the skill areas that mildly autistic individuals often excel in are overwhelmingly in mathematics, the sciences and engineering. The cliche of the geeky, socially awkward boffin has its origins in reality. If we start killing these individuals off before they’re born, what happens to our long-term survival as a species? In an age where over-population and the resulting environmental damage will increasingly rely on our technological ingenuity to keep us from destroying the planet, surely we will be hobbling our chances of success if we decide the very people most capable of solving these problems are no longer socially acceptable.
Having said that, if as a society we decide that it is ok to kill off unborn babies who are mildly socially awkward, it could be argued that as a species, we no longer deserve to survive…