Belfast Telegraph

Who could reject a baby because it has a squint?

By Frances Burscough

I had my eyes tested this week, the first time in four years. I’d noticed that even with my reading glasses on I was still ending up with eye strain, so it was obviously time to get my lenses updated.

While I was there, the optician asked me all the usual questions about my medical history and so I told her about the condition I had as a child. I had been born with congenital estropia (a severe squint, in other words) for which I’d had to endure a lot of surgery to correct. She was amazed.

“I’d never have known,” she said. “Your eyes are perfectly straight. The surgeon must have done a great job.”

Now there is a particular reason why this comment struck a chord with me. To explain further, I’ll tell you a bit more about my personal history.

I come from a very large family: three boys and five girls. Of the eight children, three of us, including me, were born with the same congenital estropia.

John and Chris, my two eldest brothers, had to wear an eye patch for two years when they were toddlers and then had minor surgery at the age of four to correct their sight. One is now a doctor, the other an architect, and both have perfect vision.

Mine was slightly more severe than theirs and required longer therapy as well as two operations. Nowadays, when I’m really tired (or a bit drunk) my squint sometimes returns and I get double vision, but apart from that my eyesight is pretty much normal and I can still thread a tiny needle, read the ingredients on an HP sauce bottle and apply liquid eye liner in one perfect sweeping motion.

Of my two children, one was born with the same condition.

I noticed Finn’s squint for the first time on photos of him blowing out the single candle on his first birthday cake. As they say over here: “One eye was looking at it and the other eye was looking for it.”

I was neither surprised nor upset. I knew the drill only too well and immediately made appointments with an orthoptist and an opthalmologist.

Although 30 years had passed, the treatment was exactly the same in 1999 as it had been for me in the mid-60s; eye patch therapy until the age of four and then a simple surgical procedure lasting approximately half an hour.

Because he was only a baby when it was diagnosed, Finn learnt to accept it very quickly. Every day he had to wear an adhesive eye patch on his “good” eye for at least four hours, to encourage his affected eye to focus and perform normally.

We made it into a fun thing, pretending that he was a pirate. Sometimes I wore one too, sometimes his dad did. When he started at Tiddlywinks Playgroup they handed out pirate hats and played special games so that Finn would not feel awkward or different.

By the age of four and a half his eye was strong enough to be operated on and Finn has had good eyesight ever since. All’s well that ends well, you might think. But recently I heard a news report which sent a shiver down my spine.

A pioneering fertility clinic in London had been granted a licence to allow the “screening” of embryos which may have genetic abnormalities.

What this actually means in real terms is that they identify the affected embryos and destroy them before they have the chance to grow.

And guess what is included in these so-called abnormalities? Genetic estropia — the same minor problem that runs so prevalently through my own family. What was once developed as a way of preventing life-threatening conditions and fatal blood disorders has now become a method for selecting a baby with greater cosmetic appeal and for weeding out small imperfections.

The phrase ‘master race’ springs to mind.

Then a horrible truth dawned on me. If a minor correctable squint was seen as being good enough reason to destroy a developing embryo, does that mean that I, and my son, and my two older brothers should feel lucky to be alive?

Remember what the optician said? I’d never have known.

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