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FITTING GENES

There are marriages and marriages. Those who go in for the True Minds sort would probably be horrified at the idea of pre-marital genetic counselling. A man and a woman, thinking about getting married to each other, could get their genetic profiles matched to check if they are compatible — that is, whether their sexual union is likely to produce healthy children. Happiness in marriage, as Jane Austen once put it, is purely a matter of chance. And one way of dealing with this element of chance is to take a medical view of reducing risks. In societies where consanguineous marriages are not taboo, or in families with histories of genetic disease, this kind of testing could substantially lower the risk of genetic disorder in the offspring. In India, counselling of this sort seems to be catching on, although the facilities are still limited. Growing awareness of HIV/AIDS has also extended this marital pragmatism to the idea of getting one’s prospective spouse tested for HIV.

This is a trend which could bring to marriage, particularly arranged ones, a greater degree of transparency, security and clearheadedness. Making such medical criteria categorically above board in matrimonial negotiations could certainly reduce evasions and double standards, just as it could give the two people involved a greater degree of control over their own destinies. Such pragmatism is healthy, in every sense. Yet, it would perhaps not be too far-fetched to imagine certain ethical ambiguities cropping up around this issue in certain circumstances. From a purely humane point of view, such measures become completely unproblematic only in societies which allow justifications for marriage other than the purely procreative. Counselling two genetically incompatible people not to get married at all on the basis of chromosome analysis excludes such options as adoption. In a poor and over-populated country, being able, or socially allowed, to look beyond biological parenthood towards other forms of nurture would certainly be of immense advantage. There is now much debate over the rights of HIV-positive couples to have children. This could be extended to the sphere of genetic risks as well. If genetic counselling becomes more easily accessible to Indians, it could change, quite profoundly, the nature of marriage negotiations, and hence the notion of marriage itself. If genetic counselling makes the reproductive function of marriage a priority without leaving room for people who want to be together for reasons other than making babies, then it might create a rather chilling society to live, and love, in.

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