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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Life risk-free? a contradiction in terms

March 07, 2002

I don't have the heart — or, perhaps more accurately, the heartlessness — to beat up on a lady whose only sin was the desire to have a healthy baby. So don't read any of what follows as a criticism of the woman —her name has not been released — who went to a geneticist to have her eggs screened for the gene that causes Alzheimer's.

That disease is a clear and present danger in the life of this woman. Her family is reportedly one of about a dozen in the world carrying a genetic flaw that virtually assures them of developing Alzheimer's — and doing so while tragically young. A sister started showing symptoms at age 38, a brother at 35. Experts say it's a virtual certainty that this woman, who is 30, will develop the mind-destroying affliction by the time she's 40.

Her problem was that she desperately wanted a child. Now, as just reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, she and her husband have one. And another is on the way.

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It's likely that when the woman's daughter, who was born a year ago, turns 10, her mom will no longer recognize her. Had she been conceived by normal means, the daughter would have faced a 50-50 chance of suffering a similar fate. Instead, she and her sibling have been freed from what amounts to a family curse.

If I were in this woman's place, I can't tell you I wouldn't have done the same thing she did. At the same time, I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being troubled by some of the moral and ethical doors that are swinging open here.

It is not, it seems to me, that big a leap from screening for fatal disease to screening for hair color, height, weight or susceptibility to allergies. Given that many cultures value females less than they do males, will we see fewer girls being born? Will self-hating blacks sign up to give their children light skin and so-called "good" hair? Will self-hating Asians want to do away with almond eyes? Will there come a day when the fertility doctor hands you a checklist and you choose characteristics — one from Column A, two from Column B —putting a human being together like you would a meal in a take-out restaurant?

I fear — and believe — the inevitable answer to all of the above is yes. It's in our nature. We seek to remove from the equation that gremlin, chance.

That's an old impulse that you and I have raised to a whole new level. The world has never seen control freaks like us. We make bestsellers out of self-help books that purport to help us put our emotional and financial houses in order. We line up to buy the latest gadget that promises to save time and simplify chores. We put the whole world in an electronic box that sits on a desk. We seek uniformity, predictability, security.

But guess what? Stuff still happens. As they did when the cliche was fresh, the best laid plans of mice and men still manage to go astray.

You wonder when or whether human beings will ever concede that their ability to guarantee their own destinies is finite at best. We do what we can, but we can never do enough.

So the two children who are now freed from the threat of Alzheimer's still face the risk that they will suffer cancer, heart disease, stroke or someday step off the curb in front of a city bus. In the words of Gilda Radner, "It's always something."

Indeed. For her, it was ovarian cancer. And I guess it would be easy to look at a thing like that and regard it as an intrusion upon your life.

But life IS ovarian cancer. It's Alzheimer's, it's heart attack, it's mental illness, it's uncertainty and it is suffering. Yet it is also, in the very same instant, laughter that makes your head swim, faith that makes your heart soar. It is triumph, hope, pleasure and, with apologies to Al Green, love and happiness as well.

To live is to be surprised, I think. And shocked. You wake up in the morning to find out what happens next.

I have no condemnation for a mother who only wanted the best for her children. But at the same time, I think there's something foolish and self-defeating in this impulse we have to make life risk-free.

That's a contradiction in terms.

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