Government-Enforced Eugenics Is Always Wrong

Parents, not bureaucrats, have the moral authority to decide whether to gene-edit prospective progeny.


Test Tube Babies

Let's take it as a bedrock moral principle: Government-enforced eugenics is always wrong. State agencies should never be allowed to tell parents what sorts of children they may or may not bear.

The Arizona State bioethicist J. Benjamin Hurlbut violates this principle in "Human genome editing: ask whether, not how," an essay in the current issue of Nature. Hurlbut notes that the Chinese researcher He Jiankui recently announced the birth of two babies he had gene-edited as embryos with the goal of resisting infection by HIV. This announcement provoked a storm of condemnation from most other researchers in the field, largely because He's CRISPR editing has not yet been shown to be safe. Thus his editing may have introduced unanticipated genetic damage that will affect the future health the two infant girls. Furthermore, did the infants' parents understand the procedure? If they didn't, they couldn't give true informed consent to the genome-editing.

But neither safety nor consent was Hurlbut's chief concern. Instead, he claims that the "crucial and as-yet-unanswered question" is "whether it is (or can ever be) acceptable to genetically engineer children by introducing changes that they will pass on to their own offspring. That question belongs not to science, but to all of humanity."

Hurlbut asserts the alleged need for determining a "broad social consensus" about "a decision that belongs to all of us." At stake, he declares, "are the ways in which we as a human community guide and govern our technological futures." He also eschews leaving human genome-editing to national (as opposed to global) regulation, let alone to markets. Doing that, he claims, "denies humanity a role in judging what futures should be brought into being."

By "humanity," Hurlbut means "government." He makes that clear when he favorably cites the fact that 29 European countries have ratified the 1997 Oviedo Convention, which declares that "making heritable genetic modifications to people violates human rights and dignity." In other words, these governments are telling parents that even after genome editing has been shown to be safe, they will not be allowed to use it to benefit their prospective children. Governments have decided for parents that they should remain at risk for passing on such genetic diseases to their children as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, sickle cell disease, fragile X syndrome, and Huntington's disease.

Decisions about having children do not and should not "belong to all of us." As I have earlier argued:

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. Individuals may not always make the right decisions with regard to reproduction, but, as history has shown, parents are more trustworthy guardians of the human gene pool than any government agency.