State-mandated eugenics is evil. This is the lesson that we should all have learned from the compulsory sterilization laws adopted by 30 U.S. states in the early 20th century and, most certainly, from the horrors of the Nazi sterilization and genocide campaigns. Yet eugenic logic is alive and well today.
In the old days, eugenicists justified restrictions on reproduction by arguing that we need to weed out people with unhealthy traits and thus protect the greater health of society. In 1927, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court infamously ruled in Buck v. Bell that the state of Virginia could force a poor woman to be sterilized. In his decision, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared: "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind."
In an ironic ethical twist, this eugenic reasoning has been turned on its head in the early 21st century. Contemporary eugenicists want to use government power to prevent people from using modern biotech methods to help them to bear children who are unburdened of inherited disease and debility. This modern prohibition is also justified on the grounds that it is needed to protect the greater health of society.
For example, the progressive Center for Genetics and Society opposes genetic modifications of embryos because they might result in "irreversible harms to the health of future children and generations" and would "inscribe inequality onto the human genome." In 2015, the Center joined with the Friends of the Earth to call for "national and international prohibitions on the use of gene editing and synthetic biology to alter the human germ line for reproductive purposes." The Council for Responsible Genetics once proposed a Genetic Bill of Rights that states, "All people have the right to have been conceived, gestated, and born without genetic manipulation."
Germ line is scientific jargon for eggs and sperm, which combine to form embryos. In both the old days and today, eugenicists have claimed that government should have the power to decide which germ lines should be and not be permitted to go forward. In other words, they think governments should have the right to decide who can have children and what sort of children they can have.
The advent of fantastically versatile, precise, and easy-to-use CRISPR gene-editing technology has incited an enormous amount of bioethical handwringing over the prospect of germ line modifications in human embryos.
The recent International Summit on Human Gene Editing in Washington, D.C., issued a statement declaring that research that involves making genetic changes in human embryos can go forward, but that such embryos should not be used to establish a pregnancy. The argument is not just that the process is not yet safe. We need, the statement says, to "consider implications for both the individual and the future generations who will carry the genetic alterations," along with the possibility of "exacerbat[ing] social inequities."
In February, British fertility specialists received regulatory permission to experiment using CRISPR to edit human embryos, yet the embryos must be destroyed after seven days of development. The requirement to destroy gene-edited human embryos has provoked Brendan Foht, an associate editor at the neoconservative journal The New Atlantis, to ask, "Why are we telling scientists to destroy human life?"
Foht evidently believes that because all people were once embryos, all embryos are people. Since it is unlikely that that debate can be resolved here, let's set it aside. The rest of Foht's argument is worth considering regardless of how you feel about when personhood begins.
"The idea that we must kill human embryos to preserve the integrity of the human germ line," Foht astutely observes, "bears a troubling similarity to the moral reasoning of the advocates of eugenic sterilization, who believed that killing individuals was worthwhile if it protected the human species as a whole. These scientists elevated abstractions such as the human gene pool above their obligations to individual human beings and families." Yes, it does and they did.
Unfortunately, Foht then buys into the notion that it is somehow ethically probative that embryos "cannot consent to the risks involved" in having their broken genes fixed or improved genes added. Once again, I remind everyone that "not one of us now living was asked to give our consent to be born, much less to be born with the complement of randomly conferred genes that we carry." Children born through gene editing therapies and those produced more conventionally stand in exactly the same ethical relationship to their parents.
Instead of "inscribing inequality," modern gene-editing techniques will give parents the option to confer on their children the same genes for good health and smarter brains that other children get randomly now. As I have earlier explained, "Safe affordable genetic medical technologies in an increasingly wealthy society are a recipe for eliminating genetic inequalities rather than perpetuating or exacerbating them."
Twentieth-century eugenicists used government power to forcibly prevent parents from passing on traits they deemed deleterious. Now 21st-century eugenicists contend the government should require parents to risk passing along genes that the parents think are deleterious to their children, whether they want to or not. What sort of horrors are parents who want to take advantage of modern gene editing likely to impose on their hapless offspring? Fixing genes that increase the risk of ill health and perhaps adding those that boost their chances of having more vigorous bodies, nimbler brains, and greater disease resistance.
Individuals may not always make the right decisions with regard to reproduction, but parents are more trustworthy guardians of the human gene pool than any would-be eugenicist central planners. Government diktats about what sort of children people can have are always wrong.
Disclosure: The editors at The New Atlantis have from time to time very generously published various articles by me.