Thursday, December 11, 2008

Double Helix--double bind

Double Helix by Nancy Werlin is young adult mystery which my daughter handed me recently. The main character, Eli Samuels, a recent high school graduate, is at a crossroads in his life in more ways than one. His mother is completely debilitated and dying of Huntington's disease. He can't afford college but his father vehemently opposes a lucrative job offer with prestigious Wyatt Transgenics by its founder, a legendary molecular biologist. And yet Eli's father won't give a reason as to why he shouldn't take the job. Well, of course, Eli takes it and thus we have our mystery.

But if Double Helix were only a good mystery, you wouldn't be reading about it here. Woven throughout the tightly constructed plot, however, are perceptive questions about life, death, souls, suffering and the modern responses of technology, such as genetic manipulation (transgenics), cloning, and artificial methods of reproduction. As these are questions we're all going to be facing in the years to come, I highly recommend this book despite the implied acceptability of premarital sex by the main character, Eli Samuels, with his long-time girlfriend. Therefore I do advise parental discretion in recommending this book to young people. However, mature young people and most adults should find this book very enlightening in terms of examining and discussing ethics in the field of transgenic biology.

Double Helix is the kind of book I wish I could read in/with a group because of all the issues it touches on. I also would like to quote several sections which are especially appropriate for moral reflection and/or debate, but I will limit myself to the following selection between Eli and his bioethics professor:

'"Many years ago, I was at a national conference on biogenetics. It wasn't purely a scientific conference; it was open to the public. The idea was that people from all walks of life--intelligent, thoughtful people--would discuss our dreams about what this technology might do for us. There were panel discussions on the eradication of MS, and Parkinson's, and Lou Gehrig's disease, and on and on. We'd identify the genetic flaws, and no one would suffer from them ever again...It was electrifying, Mr. Samuels. I was as exhilarated as anyone. But then on the last day of the conference, a young man stood up in the audience. We had been listening to a speech about how prenatal testing was showing promising signs of making it possible to eliminate Down syndrome. And . . . " Dr. Fukuyama leans across the desk her eyes intent on mine. "Mr. Samuels, the young man who stood up in the audience to talk had Down syndrome himself. He was the head of a self-advocacy group of adults with Down syndrome."

I nod.

"We were all a little taken aback," says Dr. Fukuyama. "But this young man stood up, Mr. Samuels, and he said the following. I have never forgotten it.

"'I don't understand. We don't make trouble. We don't steal things or kill people. We don't take the good jobs. Why do you want to kill us?'"

For a few seconds I cannot breathe. I stare at Dr. Fukuyama. She stares back at me. Then she smiles, a little sadly. "That moment changed everything for me. My excitement disappeared. I got a glimpse of the world we might create, with our high-flying ideas about the eradication of suffering...There's a difference between using our gene therapy for the treatment of existing medical conditions, and using our growing, but far from perfect knowledge of genes--or of humanity--to declare that we absolutely know who has--and hasn't--a right to life at all."' (pp. 244-245)

As an interesting personal side note, my oldest daughter was the one who gave me the book. She thought to shock me with me it--that I would dislike it and find it so much worse than the Twilight series because the young couple, Eli and his girl friend, actually engaged in premarital sex. So the comparison between the two books provided for some excellent discussion. I was able to show her the redeeming value in this book despite the parts in it which are clearly immoral.

Recommended, with reservations. ****

Note: When I wrote this review a few days ago for Goodreads and included the above example about the dangers facing those with Down syndrome, I was thinking future; I didn't expect to encounter concrete evidence that as a class of people, those with the Down syndrome are already being targeted for extinction. And with "new, noninvasive genetic screens" that are due to arrive in doctor's offices next year as "pos[ing] no harm to fetuses or mothers", there is virtually no speed bump on the road from pregnancy test to abortion.

Read Mary Carmichael's article "New Era, New Worry," in this week's issue of Newsweek. Interestingly the article has a subhead that says, "New tests for Down syndrome could lead to more abortions and less support for families."

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