How Badly Do You Want a Boy? A Discussion on Human Karyotyping in the Muslim Community

This article appeared in Aalia, the Muslim Family Magazine, and is part of a series that can be read here.

Scrubs at the Fertility Clinic in Riyadh, KSA

Scrubs at the Fertility Clinic in Riyadh, KSA

A relative of mine in Syria once found, via human karyotyping, that the developing embryo in her stomach was most likely to suffer deformities due to her recent exposure to German measles.  I remember the overwhelming range of emotions she and her husband experienced as they were faced with the decision to terminate the pregnancy or continue and hope for the best.  Hanafi scholars typically hold that abortion is allowed before an unborn's soul is delivered to the growing embryo.  This concept is founded on what is, perhaps, a stark difference between the majority position of Muslim scholars and that championed by the Judeo-Christian traditions, signifying that life itself is not defined by the fertilization of an oocyte, or female egg, but by a specific moment during pregnancy where God allows the soul of the future newborn to descend into its evolving body in the womb.  But more importantly, with the new ability to determine whether or not an embryo will develop “normally,” Muslim couples are now presented with questions whose implications bear huge responsibilities—topics that have yet to become openly discussed within our community. 

In Saudi Arabia, where I currently work, human karyotyping is something especially popular in fertility clinics, where Muslim couples displaying signs of primary or secondary infertility (meaning, they either have never had children or were blessed with at least one child prior to experiencing difficulties having children) have the option of spending a little extra money to examine the DNA of the embryos made in vitro (in the laboratory).  Human karyotyping is basically a tedious process where cells are extracted from a developing embryo and the chromosomes within those cells are examined for things such as genetic abnormalities or even gender.  From my experience shadowing a Senior Embryologist in Riyadh, the typical position of couples is to forgo the karyotyping, unless the doctor specifically recommends it due to a high probability of deformation.  There tends to be a lovely reliance on God and His decree, which leads me to wonder if this is perhaps, misappropriated?

For centuries Muslim scholars and thinkers have tackled the difficult issue of raising children with disabilities.  This kind of patience, they comfort us, is our ticket to Paradise.  The Prophet Mohammad, peace and blessings upon him, said, “You are given sustenance and triumph for the worthiness of those who are weak amongst you” (Abu Dawood).  The position of a parent with a disabled child in the eyes of the Lord is one we will verily envy on the Final Day, but Muslims now have the opportunity to forgo this challenge.  Does this mean that a Muslim couple should “rely” on God via giving up on the opportunity to see whether or not their unborn child will have a disability?  This becomes an especially challenging question due to the position of traditional Muslim jurisprudence experts, who maintain that terminating a pregnancy is allowed in its earliest stages. 

What upsets me the most about the topic of human karyotyping is not the decision of whether or not to use it to “turn down” a possible challenge of the lifelong responsibility of raising a child with problematic DNA.  Instead, my issue lies primarily in the potential for such a procedure to be abused.  In Riyadh, almost 100% of times human karyotyping takes place in fertility clinics for the purpose of gender identification is because couples are looking to have a boy.  This pre-Islamic obsession with the male gender hurts, especially in the face of the Prophet Mohammad’s own preference for female children in spite of Arab tradition (peace and blessings upon him).  Muslims have a duty to uphold Islamic values above cultural traditions, and human karyotyping can provide a dangerous side step to this.

In the case of my relative in Syria, she and her husband chose to terminate the pregnancy.  They were worried that they would not be capable of handling the challenge of raising a child with special needs, who would most likely not survive past the first few years of his or her life.  In the spirit of the verse of the Quran, “God does not bear a soul a burden greater than that which it cannot handle,” [2:286] they decided to hope for another opportunity of pregnancy.  She now is blessed with two children, but still recalls how difficult the decision she faced was.  They do not regret their decision, however, but include it amongst the many trials that humans must go through during this life.  The question, however, still remains—if technology were not available to make life-and-death decisions about growing embryos based off of their genders, DNA abnormalities, or other factors, would it be better for us in the eyes of our Lord?

What is your opinion about human karyotyping?  What are its potentials for abuse, if any?  Should it be encouraged in our community?  Share your opinion!

Dena AtassiComment