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Event Review: Eugenics - Science Fiction or Future Reality?

30 November 2009
By Ken MacLeod
Writer in Residence, ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, University of Edinburgh, UK
Appeared in BioNews 536

The Edinburgh Filmhouse ran its fifth Biomedical Ethics Film Festival from 20-22 November 2009 in partnership with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics (SHCB), the British Science Association and the ESRC Genomics Forum at Edinburgh University. Its theme was 'Eugenics: Science Fiction or Future Reality?' and its format was film showings followed by comments from a panel leading off a general discussion with the audience. The first day's major film was 'Homo Sapiens 1990', a documentary on eugenics.

As a Writer in Residence at the Genomics Forum, and a science fiction writer, I was invited on the panel to watch and discuss the second day's film, 'My Sister's Keeper'. Also on the panel were Steve Sturdy, deputy director of the Genomics Forum; David J. Nixon, lawyer for the SHCB, and City of Edinburgh Councillor Jeremy Balfour. Dr Calum MacKellar, SHCB Director of Research, chaired the discussion.

'My Sister's Keeper'

I wasn't sure what to expect, but rather dreaded the prospect of a movie spliced from two Hollywood genres I normally do my best to avoid: the weepy, and the issue movie. As it turned out, this is exactly what it was, but armatured with enough thought to justify the tear-jerking. Even knowing that your emotions are being manipulated, it's impossible to watch unmoved. And there's an unflinching honesty about the portrayal of the young cancer sufferer's physical deterioration: Kate's face blotches, her lips crack and her teeth crumble scene by scene.

The plot is about a bioethical issue, but not the one the film spends most of its time setting up. Given that the real issue is the story's major reveal, I'll outline the ostensible one. Anna, now nine, was conceived (and 'selected' using PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) with the deliberate intent of her being a perfectly tissue-matched donor for her leukaemic sister, Kate. Anna's life has from infancy been a succession of extractions - of blood, of bone marrow, of time and freedom - for Kate's benefit. Anna loves her sister, but when asked to donate a kidney, she rebels. She pawns some jewellery and puts nine hundred dollars down on a lawyer's desk. She wants to sue her parents for medical emancipation - the right to control her own body.

Kate and Anna's mother, played by Cameron Diaz, gave up her career to care for Kate. The career she gave up, it now turns out, was law. She storms into the lawyer's office, gives him a piece of her mind, storms out. 'See you in court.' Door slams.

Cue a courtroom drama over the moral and legal points raised by this? No. There are courtroom scenes, but the argument is never thrashed out. The heart of the mother's case is that Anna is too young to know her own mind. Not once is the question put: how then can Anna give consent? But in any case, the film has its mind on another question - a worthwhile one indeed, but one that rather undercuts the rest as drama, while making sense of it as story. And the tensions of a family that has become dysfunctional through caring have a wider reference than the case in point.

'My Sister's Keeper' may miss the mark as the issue movie on embryo selection, saviour siblings and designer babies, but the bioethics festival audience didn't seem to mind. Just that it raised the issue seemed to be enough for strong views to come from all corners of the room. The half hour we had wasn't enough time to address them all. If the audience was a reasonable sample of the interested public - as they seemed to be - even the current legal position is quite unclear to most, and the issue is framed as a slippery slope with various science-fictional dystopias at the bottom. If a society ever arises in which people are legally killed for spare parts, it could only be an engine of oppression so monstrous that that particular horror would be the least of our worries.

Dystopia

The third day's feature film was 'Gattacca' - of all genetic dystopias the most intelligent: scientifically accurate and sociologically plausible. There's no totalitarian state here, no oppressive government - the people of this not-too-distant-future impose genetic segregation on themselves, through entirely free and self-seeking behaviour. The Biomedical Ethics Film Festival has shown 'Gattacca' before - I was on the discussion panel for it a few years ago - and need not be embarrassed if, in years to come, they run it again. But let's hope we don't have too many more years to wait for another film as good. The genetic and genomic revolution is gathering pace, and it deserves to be filmed as well as televised.

Full details of the festival can still be found at website.
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