[Hat tip to colleague Terry Tomsick for bringing this to our attention] In a recent MSNBC article, bioethicist Art Caplan ponders the question "Would you have allowed Bill Gates to be born? Advances in prenatal genetic testing pose tough questions". Upon hearing the very sad
news this past week about the death of chess champion Bobby Fisher – I had to ask the same question: Would you have allowed Bobby Fisher to be born?
While we don't know for sure, Fisher's outrageous and at times hateful and bigoted behavior may have been caused by Asperger's syndrome which is part of the autistic spectrum . Or perhaps Fisher suffered from having an "extreme male brain" as characterized by Simon Baron Cohen, PhD, MPhil, a professor of developmental psychopathology in the departments of psychiatry and experimental psychology, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, and author of the book "The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain".
We may never know the truth but it would be tragic if he were simply remembered as a hateful, reclusive genius and not for the many accomplishments he brought to the world.
Dr. Caplan captures the key bioethical challenge these new genetic technologies and our understanding of the brain pose:
As genetic testing moves into the world of mental health, we are going to face some very tough questions. Will medicine suggest that any and every variation from absolute normalcy is pathological? How can we draw lines between disabling diseases such as severe autism and
more mild differences such as Asperger's, which may give society some of its greatest achievers? Will parents have complete say over the kind of children they want to bear? And what sorts of messages will doctors and genetic counselors convey when talking about risks, probabilities and choices that involve not life and death but personality and sociability, genius and geekiness?
Neither medicine nor the general public are at all ready to deal with the emerging genetic knowledge about autism, Asperger's or other aspects of mental health. But the future of our society may well hinge on how we answer these questions.
Bobby Fisher: May you rest in peace.