My Sister’s Keeper

Jennifer Lahl

What does it say about a society which permits, no, which condones the use of medicine and technology for the sole purpose of creating human life just to destroy it? It says we are a culture that has morally lost its way.

My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult’s novel turned film takes on an important and real-life issue known as “savior sibling.”

A “savior sibling” refers to the creation of a genetically matched human being, in order to be the savior of a sick child in need of a donor. This requires creating human embryos in vitro, then, using pre-implantation technology, the embryos are tested, and the one deemed genetically compatible is implanted into the mother’s womb. Once that baby is delivered, the cord blood is collected because it provides a perfect match for the sick sibling. Later on, bone marrow, blood, or even organs, can also be taken and used for transplantation for the sick sibling.

Savior siblings are already a reality, and the use of such practices in the United States is not prohibited. Adam Nash is a well-known savior sibling in the U.S. Adam was born in 2000 to rescue his sister Mollie, who was diagnosed with Fanconi’s anemia. Mollie would have otherwise succumbed to death if not for a matched donor. The Nashes created 30 embryos and went through four rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) to finally produce Adam. Of course, the ethics of the disposition of the 29 other embryos is quite problematic. Adam was chosen, 29 other human lives were not, simply because their DNA was not able to rescue Mollie from a deadly diagnosis.

In Picoult’s story, the film opens with a voice-over narration of Anna Fitzgerald, the savior sibling. Anna describes herself as a “designer baby.” Note to self: Beware of euphemisms. Euphemisms are rampant in the world of IVF. Selective reduction refers to a situation in which many embryos are transferred into a mother’s womb, and then if too many of them implant, the physician, (with the parents’ consent), removes the “extra” embryos. Family balancing, social sex-selection and gender selection are terms used to discuss the use of these technologies to intentionally select your children based on their sex and your preference for a boy or a girl. The practice of social sex-selection is banned in Canada, so Canadians who wish to order the sex of their children come to the U.S. Surely these are symptoms of a culture in decline!

Anna Fitzgerald, the self-described designer baby — designer not as in Prada, or Gucci — was designed for the purpose of being the donor for her sick sister, Kate. Anna suggests that the doctors took the best part of her mom’s DNA and the best part of her dad’s DNA and voila — the perfect match was made. If we as a society are going to be able to have an earnest conversation on the ethics of creating savior siblings, we must be intellectually honest with the facts. Embryos — as in multiple embryos, were created, and then tested, and only the one that would provide the genetic match was brought to term. The other embryos were discarded.

And here is the heart of the ethical matter. Technology, apart from any ethics, has progressed to the point where, for the first time in history, we are able to intentionally create human life and allow it to fully develop solely because we need that life to save another. And perhaps even more worrisome is the reality that other lives were created and destroyed because they did not meet the need of another. In our desire to relieve suffering, seek healing, and avoid death, we have crossed a bright ethical line by seeking to use one human life for the good of another.

Whether we look for moral guidance from our religious texts or to secular historical documents, it is important that we as a society remain rooted in the belief in the inherent dignity of all persons. The U.N. Declaration on Human Rights warns that wherever there is “disregard and contempt for human rights,” “barbarous acts” are sure to follow. Surely, the rights of the savior sibling have been denied when from their first breath they are being used as a means to an end.

Early in the film, Anna hires an attorney and announces, “I want to sue my parents for the rights to my own body.” From the moment of birth, she has been denied the full rights to her own body, and to willingly and freely be her sister’s keeper.

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