Today hardly anyone advocates the ideology and practice of eugenics, not openly anyway and certainly not using the prejudicial language of the past. Which is not to say that the notion of eugenics is a buried and long-forgotten relic❈. The vocabulary of human biology and biotechnology these days is about human gene editing, genetic engineering, genetic modification, genetic enhancement, germline gene experimentation, gene therapy, the human genome, sociobiology, reprogenetics, a Brave New World of molecular cloning, “saviour siblings”, “donor eggs” and “designer babies”.
The scientists and technocrats who enthuse about scientific progress and future technology and in particular genetic engineering, tend to be “gung-ho” about the desirability of genetic intervention in human life which they see as an inevitable process◙. To them it equates with and even defines progress – the curative and preventative promise of medical genetics is for breakthroughs in a host of life-threatening diseases.
Designing a better baby?
For many geneticists and parents, the latent capabilities of human genetic engineering (HGE) is an enticing prospect, a chance for the realisation of new medical therapies to prevent and treat the multitude of diseases that plague contemporary society. Put in these terms, something akin to a “motherhood statement”, few would at least in principle find grounds for objection. Naturally the vast majority of parents wish for a better future for their offspring and descendants, so leaving affordability aside for a moment, using biotechnology to eliminate the risks of genetic disease would appear to have broad community if not quite universal support. But as shown below, when you take a step beyond the fixing of genetic disorders and try to use that advanced science to augment your children’s physical or intellectual attributes it opens up a myriad of complex and perplexing dilemmas, both ethical and medical.
A world of environmental, manufacturing and agricultural panaceas
Aside from the controversial question of genetic manipulation there is already a range of successful genetic applications in society. There is the environmental role – genetically engineered bacterium can and is used to clean up oil spills (and for creating insulin to treat diabetics). Genetic science can reduce the human footprint on the environment. With the population of the globe predicted to rise by 2.4 billion in the next 34 years
Δ, its advocates argue that biotechnology and genetic engineering can help address the inevitable and critical world food shortage … growing new crops and effecting pest control of existing food sources.
Pre-natal counselling and screening of foetal abnormalities
Pre-natal screening for embryo defects like Down syndrome, Trisomy 18 (Edward’s disease) and spina bifida, has a seductive lure for parental planners, these are already commonplace procedures for mothers in advanced societies. Human geneticists trumpet this as a boon to parental choice, allowing the family to produce a baby free of life-threatening and restricting conditions. Preimplantation genetic screening takes this a step further.
The snowballing effect of genetic screening
IVF technology enables the screening of embryos for inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s disease or Tay-Sachs disease … many view this as the start of a continuum which could usher in an “era of designer babies”. The market in this area has created a consumer-driven demand for “eugenic services”. IVF testing for mitochondrial DHA has been exponential … in 2011 there were 580,000 medical genetic tests in Australia, a 280% jump on the 2006 figure!. Currently we test for Down syndrome and similar defects, next might be Parkinson’s disease, beyond that? If given the green light there is potentially no end in sight … will they test with a view to eradicating autism? Down the track it might be dwarfism, even homosexuality?. This may sound alarmist to some, but unchecked, it is plausible that gene tampering could ultimately infiltrate these areas.
This is the perspective of many detractors of genetic testing who question what the limits are and even if there are any limits to the relentless juggernaut of genetic research and experimentation. Some opponents of screening for genetic defects have described its ultimate purpose as “race cleansing”, echoing the fanatical purification goals of the discredited eugenics movements of the past. Human geneticists for their part proffer the reassurance that HGE has built-in safeguards that prevent excesses from occurring, that the entire process is highly regulated and intensely scrutinised to precisely stop it going too far. Opponents refute this, highlighting the dangers and uncertainties of risky human experimentation … unpredictable effects of gene transfer, the effects of gene insertion on other genes, the chance of off-target mutations (unintentional edits to genomes such as occurred in recent Chinese CRISPR-Cas9 experiments on the genome), and other unknowns, all not properly understood at this time.
Genetic enhancement and the danger of a perfectibility fixation
Genetic engineering to detect embryonic abnormalities and erase them is widely accepted in the West, genetic enhancement (practiced as a matter of course in agriculture) for humans remains a much harder sell. Genetically modifying your future child to prevent, say, a detected autoimmune disease, is one thing, but screening with the purpose of altering your child’s appearance, eye colour, etc, making him or her taller, more intelligent, more athletic, etc. … the imperative of achieving a Stepford Wives world of perfectibility could take over. This would propel medical genetics into a whole different realm, a techno-eugenic future fraught with menace and worrying ethical implications.
The ethical or moral dimension
Ethical or moral objectors to HGE seem to divide along religious and non-religious lines. Many professing a religious faith argue that the practice runs counter to the “will of God”, whilst those of a secular disposition might view it as “tinkering with nature”. The genetic engineering detractors argue that humans are inviolable, endowed with individual rights, and that such interventions are unnatural and trample all over those rights. Some academics with an interest in science ethics however dispute the merit of the ‘naturalness’ argument.
Geneticists and biotechnologists would characterise a call for a blanket ban on human genetic experimentation as a conservative, “knee-jerk” reaction which seeks to close off the door to scientific inquiry and medical advancement, but the obverse, an open slather, unchecked approach to genetic intervention seems an imprudent one, given the unknown consequences of gene editing and of venturing too deeply into a genetic minefield that is almost certainly irreversible.
Concerns with non-therapeutic abuse in genetics has a wide ambit: another peripheral issue pointing to likely future genetic manipulation lies in the realm of sport, an area already plagued by the increasingly widespread use of steroids for performance enhancement. The development of gene therapy has elevated the disturbing likelihood of gene doping – inserting or modifying DNA for the purpose of enhancing the performance of athletes. Gene doping is still in an experimental phase but is particularly concerning both to doctors and to Olympic administrators because it is hard to detect and it’s nature is unpredictable and potentially dangerous.
Whilst the possibility of misuse and harm of gene editing technology is a barrier for many, others opposing genetic manipulation from a humanist viewpoint and have called out the human genetics industry for discriminating against and undermining the dignity of the disabled and the mentally ill. Opponents say that there is a common element at the core of both eugenics and human genetic engineering – the devaluing of (some) human life. Contemporary geneticists, they say, start from the same philosophical standpoint as the old-style eugenicists: a view of the disabled and other “genetically challenged” people that is essentially negative and pessimistic, conveying the idea that they are extraneous and to be done away with. Many critics see these advocates of HGE as intolerant of those with genetic impairment, refusing to accept the disabled in particular for how they are (which is part of the diversity of the human condition). These detractors believe that the normalisation of human genetic modification would lead to an erosion of respect for the disabled.
A fundamental shift in the parent/child relationship?
Another objection to human gene policy revolves around its perceived adverse effect on the traditional bond between child and parent. Brendan Foht, from a conservative perspective, has hypothesised that in a situation where parents decide to dip into the gene pool to create the kind of offspring they want, the child becomes a product of his or her parents’ desires and wishes … their acceptance of and love for the child is provisional upon the child stacking up to that ‘wish-list’. This, Foht points out, upturns the optimal relationship in which the child is the beneficiary of his or her parents’ unconditional love.
Some opposed to the genetic engineering of humans have emphasised the absence of consent by future descendants, ie, the ethical issues raised by “altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent” (Francis Collins, US National Institute of Health). This objection has been dismissed as a nonsense by John Harris who contends that parents “have literally no choice but to make decisions for future people without considering their consent”, this happens every day, without it life would not function properly .
Proponents of HGE have made attempts to salvage the reputation of the new eugenics, eg, Nicholas Agar’s concept of Liberal eugenics which leaves the decision to the consumer (ie, the parents) rather than to public health authorities, thus avoiding (argues Agar) the repugnant consequences of past eugenics practices. But as Robert Sparrow has noted, any emphasis “on pre-determined genetics of future persons leads to assumptions about the relative worth of different life plans”.
The politics and economics of HME
Some opponents of HGE have focussed on the political and economic element: their argument runs, if genetic engineering was given free rein to intervene into the human sphere, the result would be free market eugenics, so that access to genetic modification or enhancement would come down to the ability to pay and inequalities within society would exacerbate. The fear is that in this scenario the elites of society would have a monopoly of both biological and financial control.
The thorny issue of genetic engineering of humans, especially with its uncomfortable link with the pernicious effects of the eugenics movement of last century, remains a highly controversial one. Scientific advancements in biotechnology has created a receptive market for genetic screening for defective embryos, but the genetic enhancement of humans, with its Frankenstein-ish overtones, remains a bridge too far for most people in western democracies✥.
PostScript: Genetic Enhancement – Ask an expert
In December 2015 Washington DC hosted the ‘International Summit on Human Gene Editing’ in which scientists, bioethicists and other stakeholders from the US, the UK and China debated issues around the use of the human gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9. The summit’s committee adopted a “precautionary principle” re the technology and resolved to avoid any unknown, unintended consequences. It acknowledged the value of CRISPR gene editing research as an aiding the knowledge of basic biology but advocated a cautious approach in its utilisation. It called for more research to be completed on the technology before any more ambitious applications were considered. To date 40 countries have rejected human germline modification using gametes (genetically altered embryos).
❈ which is not to say that there is no one today who advocates eugenics, eg, some elements of contemporary society couch their ideology in terms like ‘humanitarian’ eugenics, see ‘Future Generations’ (www.eugenics.net) which reproduces the work of pro-eugenics scientists such as Richard Lynn and Philippe Rushton. Similar sentiments are also apparent in the published work of Helmuth Nyborg
◙ this is at the core of the transhumanism philosophy, the belief that “the human species in its current form does not represent the end of (it’s) development”, and posits that continuous, radical change in science and technology will lead to that future (‘What is Transhumanism?’, www.whatistranshumanism.org)
Δ according to a 2015 United Nations DESA report
✥ cloning in particular remains the greatest taboo in medical genetics. A recent Pew study in the US found that the overwhelming number of its respondents oppose brain chip implants; surveys and polls in various western countries over the last 25 to 30 years have echoed this rejection of human cloning, G O Schaefer, ‘The future of Genetic Engineering is not in the West’, The Conversation, 2-Aug-2016, www.theconversation.com
 the science of altering living things by changing the information encoded in their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), ‘Genetic Engineering’, (A Guide to the Future by Christopher Barnett), www.explainigthefuture.com
 human germline editing will decrease and even eliminate many serious genetic diseases, reducing human suffering worldwide, (Emeritus Prof. Harris), J Harris, ‘Pro: Research on Gene Editing in Humans must continue’, in ‘Pro and Con: Should Gene Editing be Performed on Human Embryos?’, National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com
 D Koepsell, ‘The Ethics of Genetic Engineering’ (A position paper from the Center for Inquiry, Office of Public Policy, Washington D.C.) August 2007, www.centerforinquiry.net
 F Nelson, ‘The return of eugenics’, The Spectator, 02-Apr-2016, www.thespectator.com.au
 S Saulter, ‘Trusting the Future? Ethics of Human Genetic Modification’ (Op-Ed), 6-May-2014, Live Science, www.livescience.com; R Gebelhoff, ‘What’s the difference between genetic engineering and eugenics?’, Washington Post, 22-Feb-2016, www.washingtonpost.com
 it is a matter of trust, their argument runs, Saulter, loc.cit. Proponents place much faith in the new, cutting edge gene-editing technology, CRIPR-Cas9, which is reputed to have a lower error rate than other technologies
 ‘Q & A about Techno-eugenics’, (HG Alert), www.hgalert.org; B P Foht, ‘The Case against HG Editing’, Nation Review, 4-Dec-2015, www.nationreview.com
 M Darnovsky, ‘Con: Do Not Open the Door to Editing Genes in Future Humans’ in ‘Pro and Con’, op.cit.; HG Alert, loc.cit.
 Moreover opponents of HGE see such modifications as unnecessary, C J Epstein, ‘Is medical genetics the new eugenics?’, Genetics in Medicine, (2003) 5, www.nature.com. A 36-nation survey by D C Wertz in the 1990s found that both patients and health care professionals held a pessimistic view of the disabled, D C Wertz, ‘Eugenics is alive and well: a survey of genetic professionals around the world’, Sci Context, 1998 Aut-Wint. 11(3-4), www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
 HG Alert, loc.cit.
 Prof. Harris contends that what is ‘natural’ is not inherently good, diseases for example are natural with millions dying prematurely from them. Gene editing therapies, he says, could prevent these illnesses and deaths, Harris, op.cit.
 L A Pray, ‘Sport, Gene Doping, and WADA’, Scitable Mobile, (2008), www.nature.com; T Franks, ‘Gene doping: Sport’s biggest battle?’, BBC News, 12-Jan-2014, www.bbc.com
 HG Alert, loc.cit.
 Foht, op.cit.
 Harris, loc.cit.
 R Sparrow, ‘Liberalism and eugenics’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 89(3) 2011, www.philpapers.org
 David Koepsell has speculated that a monopolisation of power and wealth on the mechanisms of genetics could eventuate in a science fiction-esque future in which the human race is divided into two species, comprising ‘super-humans’ and ‘sub-humans’, Koepsell, op.cit.
 it concluded that editing the human germline would be ‘irresponsible’ without resolving the safety and efficacy issues, and without obtaining a “broad social consensus” on the technology’s use, T Lewis, ‘Hundreds of scientists just met in DC and had heated discussions about whether or not they should alter genes in human babies’, Business Insider Australia, 5-Dec-2015, www.businessinsider.com.au
 Darnovsky, loc.cit.