Should we decide what breed of humans to create?
Today it is possible to create designer babies – either by testing embryos, using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or fetuses, using prenatal testing.
Legislation and National Health and Medical Research guidelines restrict the use of these techniques to testing for the presence of diseases.
Sex selection and testing for non-disease characteristics, like intelligence, empathy, altruism, etc. are not allowed. That is, testing for diseases and disorders is ok; creating designer babies is not.
The targets of the Nazi and other eugenic programs, widely employed at the time in the United States and Europe, were people with intellectual disability, the poor and criminals.
The Nazis would have fully approved of the current system of eugenics, which focuses on diseases, including genetic disorders which cause intellectual disability like Down Syndrome and Fragile X syndrome.
One disability activist once said to me, “When you say it is ok to abort a baby or an embryo with a disability, but not ok to abort a ‘normal baby’, you are saying that lives with disability are less deserving of respect, or have lower moral status. When you allow abortion for disability, but not for sex selection, you are saying that people with disability have less of a right to life.”
There is some truth to this. If either the embryo or the fetus has a moral status – then it would be wrong to kill either, whether or not a disability is present. If the embryo or fetus does not have a moral status, it should be permissible to destroy an embryo or abort a fetus for any reason.
In this way, paradoxically, allowing testing for diseases, but not for other genes, is eugenic in objectionable ways.
Testing for some characteristic, like intelligence or sex, is sometimes said to send a message that people who lack that characteristic have lives which are less valuable, of lower status, or less deserving of respect. Selecting for a male sends the message that females are less valuable.
But we should treat all people equally, regardless of race, sex or disability. So genetic testing is seen to send the wrong message about the equality of people.
However, the same is sometimes said about testing for disease. Testing for cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome is said to send the message that such lives are less valuable, that those people are of lower status.
This is deeply mistaken. To say that a disease is bad is not to say that a person with that disease is less equal or bad in some way. The problem is some people identify with their disease, disorder or some other characteristic about themselves, like sex.
But we are all individual people, deserving of equal respect, regardless of features about ourselves. To say that X is bad, or not desired by me, is not say that John or Julie with X has few rights. Selecting embryos for certain characteristics or treating diseases are both entirely independent of the equality of persons.
The last common objection to creating designer babies is that it will have bad social effects. This is easiest to see in the case of sex selection, where sex selection has seriously disturbed the sex ratio in parts of India and China.
I personally think that social reasons can provide a justification for interfering in liberty of reproduction. Massive overpopulation would be a reason to restrict fertility. People should not be having ten children today, as they did in the past.
But it is important to recognize that this is one of the objections that were laid at the door of the Nazi eugenics program: that it tried to use restrictions on reproduction (and killing) to bring about a certain race (the Aryan race).
To place restrictions on the freedom of reproduction for social purposes requires that we really be aiming at some uncontroversially good social purpose (not the Aryan race), that the restriction is necessary to achieve that purpose, and that there is no less liberty-restricting policy that could achieve that purpose.
Bans on the use of genetic testing for non-disease states fail this test. Consider two examples. There is no reason that a total ban on sex selection is necessary in Australia to maintain a roughly even sex ratio. The sex ratio could be monitored, sex selection could be allowed only for females or only for family balancing (having a child of the opposite sex to existing children). All three of these policies would preserve the sex ratio, while allowing sex selection.
Or consider more controversially, future tests for intelligence, empathy, etc. One of the major objections to this is that diversity is necessary for social functioning. We need a spread of intelligence, the argument goes, to fill all jobs. Or we need a certain number of psychopaths in the population (though I never really understood for what - ruining companies?)
These are incredibly controversial claims and a poor basis for restricting the liberty of people to access genetic tests.
Regulation of genetic testing to bring about social goals is controversial and can, in a limited number of circumstances, be justified. But it should only rarely constrain the liberty of couples to access the widest range of tests and knowledge in making decisions about reproduction.
The current restrictions on genetic testing, allowing embryos to be tested only for the purpose of detecting diseases, are liberty-restricting, objectionably eugenic and immoral.
Paradoxically, Australia is much closer to Nazi eugenics by only allowing testing of embryos for diseases than it would be if it lifted the ban on tests for non-disease characteristics, like sex, intelligence, empathy, altruism and so on.
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 fetuses 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 use the emerging knowledge from genetics to have not just healthier children, but children with better genes. We should give chance a helping hand.
Julian Savulescu is Sir Louis Matheson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Monash University and Chair in Practical Ethics at University of Oxford. He will appear on SBS’s Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on SBS ONE.
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