Many people have worried about what genetic engineering is going to do to child-bearing. Is it going to be possible to choose your children’s physical traits (height, eye color, etc.)? Is it going to be possible to design out undesirable traits (anything from Down’s Syndrome to cleft palate)? Is it going to be possible to design out traits that some considerable undesirable but others consider normal (homosexuality)? News from Britain via the Times of London offers yet another variation on this theme: what about people who want to design in disabilities:

DEAF parents should be allowed to screen their embryos so they can pick a deaf child over one that has all its senses intact, according to the chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf and Hard of Hearing People (RNID).

Jackie Ballard, a former Liberal Democrat MP, says that although the vast majority of deaf parents would want a child who has normal hearing, a small minority of couples would prefer to create a child who is effectively disabled, to fit in better with the family lifestyle.

Ballard’s stance is likely to be welcomed by other deaf organisations, including the British Deaf Association (BDA), which is campaigning to amend government legislation to allow the creation of babies with disabilities.

A clause in the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which is passing through the House of Lords, would make it illegal for parents undergoing embryo screening to choose an embryo with an abnormality if healthy embryos exist.

Weird, isn’t it? The government wants to prevent people from deliberately saddling their children with disabilities, and others insist on the right to do so. Medical professionals aren’t thrilled with the latter’s efforts:

Doctors are opposed to creating deaf babies. Professor Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director of the Bridge Centre, a clinic in London that screens embyros, said: “This would be an abuse of medical technology. Deafness is not the normal state, it is a disability. To deliberately create a deaf embryo would be contrary to the ethos of our society.”

But deafness is now, to some, not just a physical disability but a “cultural” trait, and they want to be able to pass along their “culture” to their children:

Ballard, who previously ran into controversy as director-general of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) where she pushed through extensive job cuts, said in an interview with The Sunday Times: “Most parents would choose to have a hearing embryo, but for those few parents who do not, we think they should be allowed to exercise that choice and we would support them in that decision.

“There are a number of deaf forums where there are discussions about this. There are a small minority of activists who say that there is a cultural identity in being born deaf and that we should not destroy that cultural identity by preventing children from being born deaf.”

Ballard added: “We would like to retain, as far as possible, parental choice, but it has to be in conjunction with a clinician so that people know exactly what they are choosing.”

Ah, choice: the ultimate trump card of our age. I wonder how the Labor-dominated Parliament is going to stand up against that argument.

Francis Murphy, chairman of the BDA, said: “If choice of embryos for implantation is to be given to citizens in general, and if hearing and other people are allowed to choose embryos that will be ‘like them’, sharing the same characteristics, language and culture, then we believe that deaf people should have the same right.”

How deaf people view themselves and their community is up to them. They should leave future children alone, however. Children aren’t a commodity to be manufactured, and these folks have no more right to decide that their children will be deliberately bereft of hearing than they have a right to decide they will be born blind or without legs or with one kidney or with hemophilia.

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