A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Genetic compatibility as a new dimension of partnership? (By Julia Inthorn)

JULIA INTHORN is associated researcher and working on genetic risk information and pre-conceptional genetic screeningPreconception genetic carrier tests can inform a person if he/she is carrier of a recessive disease. In case the partner is also a carrier of the same disease, the couple has an increased risk (usually a 1 in 4 risk) to have a child with this disease. Current research in genetics works on developing tests for up to 600 of such recessive inherited diseases. Couples can use this test when planning a pregnancy and check if they are both carriers of the same disease.

In case a couple who are both carriers wants to rule out the risk of having an affected child they have different options: Medical options range from using IVF and preimplantation genetic tests to prenatal test (and the option of abortion in case the child is affected) to using donor gametes. Non-medical options are refraining from having children, adopting children or changing partner.

Preconception genetic carrier screening adds a new dimension to the question of family planning and partnership. In the rhetoric about partnerships – in online tests, horoscopes and questionnaires of online dating services – compatibility of partners is already a great issue connected to questions like matching in taste and interests but also similarity of background.

Genetic (in)compatibility is a new hitherto undiscussed aspect of partnership and marriage. While the idea of testing the genetic compatibility of partners might seem very unromantic to some the question of raising a seriously ill child together poses some important questions: questions of how partners imagine to be parents together, how they envision responsibility for a child and what kind of medical and non medical measures they think are acceptable.

Thinking about integrating genetic information into our concepts of family will challenge our ideas of responsible parenthood. We need not only to make decisions carefully but also to understand how decisions influence possible future plans: Building on a partnership irrespective of genetics leads to other questions and options in family planning than checking genetic compatibility during dating.

Discussions about integrating new genetic information into our concepts of family planning should address what options are most important and how to open up rooms of choices.

Julia Inthorn

Approaching future issues - the Ethics Blog


  1. Mirko Ancillotti

    This is a very interesting topic. It seems to me too that testing genetic compatibility of partners is pretty unromantic, but it is at the same time very responsible. Responsible parenthood (and partnership) is better than romanticism, in my opinion.

  2. Christian Munthe

    Julia, it deserves mentioning that this sort of matching (if one wants) has very old roots and has been used for centuries bu ruling pwoers of different sorts for restricting access to procreation and parenthood and marriage. The best example is, perhaps, that of Tay Sachs disease (an autosomal recessive disease of the sort described in the entry) among Azkenazi Jewish populations, where rabbis are known tohave refused marriage license on the basis of familial risks of carrier status for both in a couple, detected through analysis of family history. I’ve heard verbal accounts of similar uses of genetic information in Japan in connection to arranged marriages, which are still common among certain segments of the population, where the presence of a risk of genetic disease (a common example has been Huntington, which would presumably not be a part of the sort of operation you describe, since it is dominantly inherited) has been viewed as a valid reason for cancelling a marriage contract.

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