Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Deaf lesbians, “designer disability,” and the future of medicine

BMJ 2002; 325 doi: (Published 05 October 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;325:771
  1. Julian Savulescu, director. (
  1. Oxford Centre for Applied Ethics, Oxford OX1 1PT
  1. Correspondence to:
  • Accepted 9 July 2002

The topic of this article is the subject of a debate in this month's issue of Journal of Medical Ethics. Go to to read the debate in full

With the completion of the human genome project, the genetic basis of disease is becoming better understood. Genetic tests for disabilities are increasingly becoming available to allow couples with a family history of genetic disease to select healthy offspring. But some couples wish to select for disability. Might there be good reasons for acceding to such requests?

A deaf lesbian couple in the United States have deliberately created a deaf child. Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough used their own sperm donor, a deaf friend with five generations of deafness in his family. Like others in the deaf community, Duchesneau and McCullough don't see deafness as a disability. They see being deaf as defining their cultural identity and see signing as a sophisticated, unique form of communication.13 (See box 1 for references on commentaries realting to this case.)

Box 1: Creating deaf babies—commentaries on this case

  • Anstey KW. Are attempts to have impaired children justifiable? J Med Ethics2002;28:286-8. ; see Current Controversies.

  • Levy N. Deafness, culture and choice. J Med Ethics2002;28:284-5. ; see Current Controversies.

  • has links to references discussing equality and disability published in the Journal of Medical Ethics (


Zina Emmerson, like her husband and three of her four children, is profoundly deaf. She said: “For me, I would just let it happen naturally. I was happy either way [with my children]. As long as they were healthy. But I can understand why they did it. It's so easy to communicate with your own kids in your language [sign language].”4

Summary points

  • Genetic tests should be offered to couples seeking to have a child to allow them to select the …

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