There’s nothing nasty, or Nazi, about gene selection
We should use the emerging knowledge from genetics to have not just healthier children, but children with better genes. Unfortunately however, talking about better genes invites the objection, “That’s eugenics. That’s what the Nazis did.”
Last century, the eugenics movement in Europe and the United States sought to use selective breeding to protect the gene pool by weeding out criminals, the insane and the poor, based on the false belief that such conditions were simple genetic disorders.
It reached its inglorious climax when the Nazis moved beyond sterilization to exterminate the “genetically unfit” – those with inferior genes.
“Eugenics” literally means “well born”. The kinds of genetic testing for diseases that are permitted in Australia are examples of eugenics. So we already practise eugenics.
One thing that was objectionable about the eugenics movement was the coercive imposition of a state vision for a healthy population. Modern eugenics, sometimes called liberal eugenics, in the form of testing for disorders like Down’s Syndrome is commonplace but is acceptable because it is voluntary – parents are given a choice over what kind of child to have and the aim is to promote the greatest opportunity for a good life. Some people choose to exercise their freedom and have children with disabilities or diseases.
Whether we like it or not, our future is in our hands now. But if we do not exercise control over the genetic nature of our offspring, we consign them to the natural lottery.
The natural lottery of choosing genes from a couple has no mind to health, happiness, fulfilment or anything we value. It is a random process. It distributes dispositions to violence, psychopathy, altruism, fairness and so on randomly. We should use science and our values to select offspring – rational evolution. We can and should do better than chance. At very least, we should be free to try.
The only legitimate ground for interference in liberty in a liberal society is when people directly harm others. Parents should not be allowed to choose genes which dispose to violence or wanton aggression, or psychopathy.
But otherwise, we should give parents the freedom to choose the genes of their children. This already happens in the US. The tests for all 23 000 genes will come. Paradoxically, to stop people using that knowledge, as happens in Australia, is State mandated ignorance and unjustified coercion in reproduction, a form of naturalistic eugenics where the State decides we must have children by chance because that is what it judges to be best for society.
In addition to freedom, we need ethics. We should encourage and guide people to make choices relating to genes that really do have an impact on the future child’s well-being.
At the bottom of this debate is fundamental concern about what ethics is. People worry because the Nazis had different values to us. Most people claim to be moral relativists – they believe there are no such things as objective values.
According to relativism, ethics is relative to culture or people’s preferences. But moral relativism is false – equality, altruism, co-operation, empathy, sympathy, intelligence, wisdom and justice are good whatever a certain society or person thinks.
If we focussed on achieving rational ethical consensus, we would have the compass to guide our use of science. Not just in reproduction but in life.
There is one further mistake that people make in this debate. They conflate having inferior genes with being an inferior person. They confuse genes with people. Once a person exists, that person is entitled to equal concern and respect, whatever their genes, abilities or disabilities. The Nazis were racists. We are right to condemn the Nazis. Racism, sexism, discrimination against the disabled are wrong. (These are non-relative claims.) But that should not stop us finding treatments for disabilities or diseases. Or for enhancing people’s normal capacities when it would make their lives better.
The way to prevent a slide to Nazism or to any abuse of power is grounded in the rejection of moral relativism and sound ethics identifying universal human values and principles. The Human Rights movement since the Second World War is an example of this.
To prevent the abuse of any powerful technology including nuclear, nanotechnology, biological modification, artificial intelligence– whether it arises from neuroscience, genetics, pharmacology, physics or computer science – is the marriage of freedom and non-relativistic ethics.
Freedom to protect and ethics to guide. But modern regulation of reproduction violates both of these principles: it constrains freedom and employs a very narrow view of value.
Should we decide what breed of humans to create? Some people believe that children are a gift, of God or Nature, and that we should not interfere in human nature. Most people implicitly reject this view – we already routinely screen embryos and foetuses for diseases.
In the case of genetic selection, the children who come to exist as a result of selection could have been chosen by chance. And they have a reason to be grateful insofar as their lives are good. We should give chance a helping hand.
Designer babies is not merely a debate about the future of reproduction. It is a debate about the future of civilization. We can stand still, go backwards or choose to go forwards. The best way to use science is on the basis of robust ethics.
Julian Savulescu is Sir Louis Matheson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Monash University and Chair in Practical Ethics at University of Oxford. He is a participant in the next IQ2 Australia debate. The event will be taking place in Sydney tonight.
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