No to 'Deaf' Embryos

Tomato Lichy and his partner, Paula Garfield, are deaf and have a 3-year-old deaf daughter. Now they want to have another child using in vitro fertilization, hoping the newborn will be deaf, too.

But fertility legislation under debate in the U.K. Parliament could make it illegal for such couples to use embryos that have a known genetic flaw when healthy embryos are available.

The human embryology and fertilization bill would allow parents to decide whether to have their embryos screened before implantation into the womb.

If they don't, Lichy and Garfield could take their chances in the hopes that a deaf one is chosen. If they do, they will have to opt for the "normal" embryos over the others.

In response to what they believe is a discriminatory bill, Lichy and Garfield are determined to challenge the traditional concept of disability. Rather than seeing deafness as an impairment, they perceive it as the key to a different world with its own language, its own culture and its own history.

They consider themselves part of a minority group, like any other that might have perceived flaws or disabilities. Yet, as Lichy puts it in an interview with ABC News, "that doesn't mean we must kill off anyone who is not a straight white male Christian."

Lichy and Garfield, Londoners who communicated with ABC News via e-mail and text messaging, said they lead a perfectly normal life.

She runs a theater company that regularly produces plays in sign language, and he is a governor at their daughter's school, as well as a lecturer at the Tate Modern museum. They go to see Shakespeare and Pixar films at the local cinema, with subtitles. They pick up their daughter at school and get stuck in traffic jams, just like everyone else. "I can't see where our life is stunted," Lichy said.

They claim that the bill doesn't acknowledge their normality, believing it implicitly states that deaf people are not equal to people who hear.

This is a concept they also refuse to accept for the sake of their daughter, Molly.

She is a child growing up in the belief that deaf is good and normal, Lichy and Garfield said. She is perfectly at ease with sign language and is learning how to speak. Her parents say it would be hard to explain to her that she can't have a deaf sister or a brother because the law says that deaf embryos shouldn't be knowingly accepted.

Lichy and Garfield accuse the state of deliberately shaping the biological quality of its citizens and of treating deaf people as second-class citizens.

"We've always said the point is that the government wants to impose state-enforced eugenics upon us," Lichy told ABC News. "For us, personally, we would love a deaf baby, but fundamentally, what we want is the same rights as hearing people."

They are not the only ones making such claims. In an open letter about the bill, Francis Murphy, chairman of the British Deaf Association, said that "motivations for prohibiting genetic selection should be carefully evaluated for eugenic bias preferring certain physical characteristics." On the other hand, though, the concept of deliberately picking a deaf embryo looks like eugenics to many hearing people.

Luca Mazzarella, a biology researcher at the Imperial College in London, told ABC News that once the embryos are screened and checked, a eugenics process is already taking place, regardless of the parents and their preferences.

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