Handing down the dilemmas

29th December 1995 at 00:00
A play and workshop confront teenagers with a future in which genetic selection will be a real option. If I wasn't me, who would I be? Contemplating the idea of never having been born can produce some weird feelings. The realisation that each of us is unique, all bearing our very own set of genes, becomes more fascinating, if a little sinister, when we further realise that those genes predetermine much that happens to us in our lives. Our height, our gender, or the colour of our eyes are all decided by our genetic make up.

A more uncomfortable notion is that other factors are also controlled by genes: our physical state can be affected by inherited disorders or conditions such as those relating to heart, skin, or bone structure. As more is discovered and understood about genetics, more characteristics are thought to be related to our genes, aspects such as a manual dexterity, sexual orientation, or even, it has recently been suggested, a tendency to criminal behaviour.

But what if I discover that I exist only because my father chose me, as an embryo, because I have a gene profile that indicated I would be an exceptional athlete, and a boy? This is the situation that confronts Mark Kay, a 16-year-old boy in Y Touring's thought-provoking play The Gift, part of the Dramatic Genetics project for secondary schools that explores the facts and moral arguments surrounding modern genetics.

The Gift centres around the Kay family which, it is discovered through the diagnosis of 16-year-old Annie, is subject to the wasting condition Friedreich's Ataxia. Written by Nicola Baldwin, the play shows the impact such a diagnosis has on a family.

In a very moving way, which produces covert tear-wiping even from the tough-nut 16-year-old boys in the audience, The Gift examines the reactions of guilt, fear, confusion and downright misery which Annie, her mother Barbara, and her 13-year-old brother Ryan experience.

The play cleverly explains a few basic facts about genetics while drawing in many arguments surrounding genetic selection. Ryan argues with his wife Jennifer on discovering that she too has also inherited a rogue gene for Friedreich's Ataxia. Should they opt for genetic selection, choosing an embryo clear of the gene for the disease?

"Life is about diversity," says Jennifer. "There'd be no life at all without evolution, and evolution is based on rogue genes. All this screening, testing - what's it going to do to the richness and diversity of human life? Where do these doctors draw the line?" "Richness and diversity?" responds Ryan. "We're talking here about crippling and painful illnesses."

The Dramatic Genetics project is a "Science through the Arts Programme" commissioned by the Wellcome Centre for Medical Science, part of the Wellcome Trust, and created by Y Touring. After the stirring action of the play, the students take part in a workshop at which they role play being the members of the Eurasian Council for Genetic Testing in the year 2025, the year in which Mark Kay discovers his genetic history.

The workshop is deftly led by the actress who plays Jennifer. She comes out of role but the remaining cast appear in role to put their views to the Council, which is deciding on the case of a couple. This couple have discovered they both carry the rogue gene for Friedreich's Ataxia and wish to select an embryo that is clear. While they are about it, they would like to select a girl, as they have a son, and also select a gene for thinness as the father was bullied at school because he was overweight.

The response from the "Council" at Lawnswood School, Leeds, was the same as at most other schools: after much discussion, the couple were permitted to select against Friedreich's Ataxia, but few voted for gender selection, and only one brave lad voted for selecting a "thin" gene. The discussion in this Year 10 drama studies group ranged from the individual's right to choose, to criticism of the lack of tolerance towards disabled people and a small element of fatalistic, "if you choose to have children, you have to take what you get".

Dramatic Genetics is being taken up by schools for use in several different ways. As well as the drama content, the issues involved make it suitable for personal and social education classes, and as genetics is a significant part of the national curriculum, it is also relevant for science groups.

When The Gift was performed at St George's College of Technology in Sleaford, Lincs, the teacher and pupils were impressed. "We had a very positive response from the students," says Marilyn Webley, head of science at St George's. "The play raised the level of interest in genetics and related it to real life, which is something that is very difficult to do in the classroom. It also prompted questions from pupils about illnesses that are linked with genetic disorders, either because they suffer themselves or because they know some one who does."

The detailed and well-produced teacher's pack includes follow-up activities and a reference section.

Further information about Dramatic Genetics from: Michelle Gilliver, Y Touring, 10 Lennox Road, Finsbury Park, London N4 3NW.

Tel: 0171 272 5755

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