Biotechnological consequences on Mental Illness

With advances in technology there are new, never before thought of moral dilemmas. It has been thought, that with new technology, that would allow for the advance detection of genetic deformities in babies, more people would have abortions and entire groups of people, such as people who have Trisomy 13, will disappear and that if such a thing were to happen it would be morally wrong. The aim of this paper is not to debate whether eliminating such groups is morally wrong, rather it is to see if such technology will actually lead to the disappearance of a category of people, specifically the mentally ill through use of abortion. For such technology to eliminate mental illnesses it must be the case that mental illnesses in babies are able to be detected at all, that technology could then detect the abnormality, that the law would allow for abortions on this basis, and that each parent facing this situation will choose to abort the child.

To hold that we can detect a baby that has a mental illness, it must be that there is something physically different about the baby, that would indicate the mental illness. This leads one to the question; are mental illnesses physical phenomena which can be detected or not? There are conflicting answers to this question. In Fitts v. Federal National Mortgage Association, the judge ruled that the plaintiff was entitled to compensation for physical illness instead of mental illness from her bipolar disorder. The main support for this was that Jane Fitts was “genetically predisposed” to develop bipolar disorder because her father exhibited symptoms, she had an abnormal brain wave activity on both sides of her brain, and that there were physical changes to her due to the illnesses such as insomnia.[1] Groups such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), use cases such as the one just cited to support their claim that mental illnesses have a biological basis. If this is true it would seem that the detection of mental illnesses can occur with infant patients. However, there are conflicting reports. An article written by Keith Holler an editor of the “Review of Existential Psychology & Psychiatry” for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer comes to the opposite conclusion about mental illnesses. He notes that many groups such as NAMI receive funding from pharmaceutical companies which have a large interest in keeping the notion of mental illnesses as biological illnesses alive.[2] He writes “Psychiatrists have yet to conclusively prove that a single mental illness has a biological or physical cause or a genetic origin.”[3]  Furthermore he states that there has yet to be developed a single physical test to prove a mental illness.[4]  When a group of mental patients went on a fast to demand that the mental health industry produce just one study claiming that there is a biological basis for mental illnesses Dr. James Scully responded by telling them to look at “Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General”.[5] When the report was actually examined no such proof was found. In fact, it was found that it stated that “the precise causes (etiology) of mental disorders are not known…there is no definitive lesion, laboratory test, or abnormality in brain tissue that can identify (a mental) illness.”[6] Although I believe the argument fails here in that mental illnesses have no biological basis, the argument also fails in other places if the biological basis is taken to be true.

Even if there is a biological basis for mental illness, for example, some genetic predisposition, is technology at the stage in which this detection is possible? As of right now, the answer must be no. If we could detect the genetic phenomenon which leads to mental illness then there would be no conflict with whether or not such an illness has a biological basis. Due to the speed at which scientist are mapping other living organisms, it is not unreasonable to believe sooner rather than later technology will be able to detect a biological basis for mental illness, that is, of course, assuming there is one. Furthermore, I cannot possibly go over the technology involved in this size a paper so I shall assume for the argument that in three years such technology will be available to detect the biological basis and that this technology will somehow be available to everyone having a child.

Would a parent who knows their child is mentally ill, be legally allowed to have an abortion? In Canada, the parent would be allowed to have an abortion for this reason because not allowing the mother to do so would be violating section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[7] In Canada and the United States, a mother can have an abortion to save her life, to preserve the physical or mental health of the mother, for social and economic reasons. Furthermore, the baby can be aborted in cases of rape, or when there are medical problems or defects with the child. In fact, no reason is even necessary for a mother to have an abortion.[8] Although mothers would be allowed to have in abortion, if it was discovered that their child was mentally ill, this is not enough to show that advances in technology threaten to wipe out mental illnesses through abortions, because there is no evidence that each parent facing this problem will all choose to have an abortion. Although it is true that many parents have trouble coping with their children being disabled[9], this does not mean that they would have an abortion. Many people facing the situation might be against abortions. The parents may not even have the fetus tested in the first place negating the problem altogether.

Advances in technology will not lead to the elimination of mental illnesses through abortion. Whether mental illnesses are something which can be physically found is still being debated with no clear answer. Even if it were possible, the technology is currently not available to detect it. Although it is reasonable to assume that the technology someday will be available, there is no evidence that even though it is legal, every mother that knows she is going to have a mentally ill child will have an abortion. The evidence is just not there that new technology is going to lead to mass abortions in hopes to have a perfect child as doomsayers believe.


  1. Bernadette Melnyk et al. Coping in Parents of Children Who Are Chronically Ill. Pediatric Nursing, November-December 2001/Vol.27/No.6
  2. Keith Hoeller. No Proof mental illness rooted in biology. Seattle PI, Friday August 23, 2003
  3. NAMI E-News February 28, 2002 Vol. 02-57

[1] NAMI E-News February 28, 2002 Vol. 02-57

[2] Keith Hoeller. No Proof mental illness rooted in biology. Seattle PI, Friday August 23, 2003

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid



[9] Bernadette Melnyk et al. Coping in Parents of Children Who Are Chronically Ill. Pediatric Nursing, November-December 2001/Vol.27/No.6