Modern Eugenics: Designer Children

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Back in the fourth century BCE, Plato expounded a practical utopian vision of what a Greek city should be in his Republic. He argued that a wise council of rulers should control the reproductive practices of the people, choosing who would be allowed to have sex and how often. He further suggested that the upper class citizens (Guardians) who displayed Greek virtues (say, by fighting bravely) should be allowed to reproduce most often, so that their characteristics become more widespread in the city. He also mentioned briefly in the middle of the book that "children of inferior Guardians, and any defective offspring of others, will be quietly and secretly disposed of" (by methods including exposure, a somewhat common practice back then of leaving a baby in the elements until it died). The practice Plato was suggesting, of trying to change or improve humans by controlling their breeding, is known as eugenics. To encourage the reproduction of those with qualities seen as beneficial is known as positive eugenics. To discourage the reproduction those with qualities seen as undesirable is known as negative eugenics.

Centuries later, in the 1920's, the Eugenics Movement reached its peak following the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's research on heredity and the wide acceptance of evolution. Eugenicists in the U.S., often basing their arguments on bad science from a genetics still in its infancy (and just as often basing their arguments on no science at all), attempted to improve their country by promoting the reproduction of 'proper' citizens and preventing 'poor breeding' by keeping people with undesirable traits (pauperism, alcoholism, epilepsy, or merely being from countries with 'inferior stock') from reproducing. This resulted in such infamous laws as the Immigration Act of 1924 which put a quota on immigrants entering the U.S. from certain countries, not to mention local laws that forbid those who had been in mental institutions or jails from having children.

Today, most people abhor the negative side of eugenics, from the infanticide of Plato to the appalling policies of eugenicists, but positive eugenics is perhaps less frowned upon. After all, sperm banks pay top dollar for the DNA of brilliant scientists or famous sports talents (it's been suggested that if human cloning ever came about, Einstein would show up second behind Michael Jordan), suggesting that people would rather have the heritable traits of these people passed on than those of no-names. It certainly is not being pushed legislatively yet, but positive eugenics seems to enjoy a better reputation than negative eugenics.

However, is negative eugenics really out of the picture these days? It has recently become possible for doctors to detect severe and debilitating handicaps in very young fetuses still in the womb, and it is becoming more and more common for such fetuses to be aborted long before they come to term, in order to avoid bringing about a child that would spend a life suffering horribly. This practice is certainly far from public policy - and so it differs radically from the practices of the historical Eugenics Movement - but it shows a certain public willingness to minimize the number of offspring that have certain undesirable traits (in this case, for the potential child's benefit, rather than out of racist motivations and bad science, as with the historical eugenicists).

Taken together with the incredible progress in the science of genetics these days (and in coming years), this brings up some important questions. In the science fiction movie GATTACA, a near-future society has developed a technique which allows parents to select the traits of their children (from hair and eye color to strength to lack of disease to intelligence capacity). The movie explores the potential problem that those who children who weren't 'maximized' by this process will be discriminated against: the title character is presumed incapable of space flight due to the mere genetic possibility of a heart problem since he wasn't 'maximized' by his parents, even though he outperforms his 'maximized' counterparts in all tests.

One wonders if a similar problem might arise in our society once gene therapy develops to the point that we can alter a future child's traits pre-natally (perhaps even pre-conception). It's likely that at first we would get rid of things like structural birth defects that are deadly, and probably conditions like Alzheimer's disease that can cause indescribable mental decay late in life. It's hard to imagine anyone not wanting to get rid of such conditions, if it is possible.

The question perhaps blurs for some people, though, when we talk about conditions of mental retardation like Down Syndrome. Some have asked whether condemning mental retardation as a 'negative trait' (that is, one to be avoided by means of gene therapy) in turn condemns those people who have already been born with it. By all means, those with such conditions can and do often lead very full lives and are loved by their families as much as anyone else. Is it unfair to them for society to accept their conditions as 'bad'? Will it lead to discrimination against them, never giving them a chance? It's a tough question to answer, and I'm afraid I have to admit that it probably will lead to discrimination against them. In fact, that discrimination already exists in our society - people are already treated poorly or not given a chance based on their having these conditions. But it might get worse, I'll grant that.

Does that mean, then, that we should not try to avoid mental retardation in future children? There is no denying that these conditions leave people with a lot of suffering. Personally, I have trouble imagining that someone would choose to have such a severe mental handicap over not having it. Imagine the following thought experiment: rather than being born with mental disabilities, people are presented at a certain age with a choice, a little switch they can push one way or the other once and for all. That choice determines whether from then on out they will be mentally disabled or not. Would people really choose anything but 'not'? Whether choosing for themselves, or for their children, it seems like there is no reason to choose to have severe mental handicaps. And the fact is, as the technology becomes real, these things do become a choice. So it seems to me that people will eventually choose to avoid these conditions in their children as that option becomes available.

This is not to say that the lives of those with these conditions are any less valuable because the condition itself is considered 'bad' (after all, we wouldn't hold it against a person with a genetic predisposition towards Alzheimer's that they have the disease). The fact that people might choose not to have a baby with Down Syndrome, e.g., does not mean that they are denying the right to life to people who have Downs Syndrome. There is an important distinction between a potential human and a living individual. I think people tend to look at a zygote with 'bad genes' (let's call it A) and say that if carried to term, A will become B (a hypothetical, possible entity, in this case a fully grown human being, fully capable of all the emotions and things that make us human, but with a severe mental handicap). In a way then, they are saying that A=B. Then, and here is the crux, I think people tend to associate B - this possible human that has whatever traits they would have - with a class of people, C's, which contains actual people with these traits. Thus, when someone suggests to change the properties of A (to get rid of the genes for conditions of mental retardation), people note that it logically follows that B no longer exists. B is, in effect, denied reality. Then, following the psychological association people tend to have between B and the class of actual people C's, they associate the changing of A with the denial of rights - of the right to reality/life - to C's, to actual people. Thus, there seems to be a mistaken psychological association of changing a zygote's genetic makeup with the killing or denying of rights to those who are handicapped.

The crucial point to be made is that B is a potential entity. It is not in the class of C's. To deny B life is not to say anything about C's that exist now (or C's that come to exist later, say through a slip in the process, or because the process isn't done universally). I see no reason to accord B any more rights than I accord D. Who's D? D is the potential, hypothetical person who would have came about if some guy had combined the sperm from his latest masturbation to the egg from some woman's latest period. Yes, D is a potential human being, who - if he came about - would undeniably deserve the same rights as us. But why care about all the near infinite D's that could come about if, hypothetically, any one sperm (out of however many) from any one guy (out of billions) combined with any one egg (out of however many) from any one gal (out of billions)? Surely every period or 'wet dream' (not to mention sex which doesn't result in pregnancy) would become a cause for incredible ethical concern.

So assuming that people keep in mind the fact that people living with Down Syndrome aren't any less human than those without it, perhaps they can minimize the discriminatory effects of classifying Down Syndrome as a 'bad thing', as something to be avoided if possible. The concerns of how this sort of gene therapy might be put into practice are very real, and it is best to keep them in mind as technology brings those possibilities closer; but I think the potential benefits outweigh the potential harm.

Beyond severe mental handicaps, though, there are also severe physical handicaps. To make it simple, let's say that there is a genetic condition out there that makes people unable to use their arms and legs. Now, compare that to someone who, at a young age, has an accident that makes them unable to use their arms and legs. The condition would certainly cause both people a lot of suffering. And it seems like most people would choose not to have such an accident at a young age - for themselves or, say, their children - so how is it different from the genetic example? That is, whether the condition comes from physical accidents or the accidents of genes doesn't seem to matter. So the question is: are physical disabilities (whatever their cause) 'bad traits', that is, something we would rather avoid if we could? There may be gray areas which I will get to shortly, but I think in general intuition leads one to agree that physical disabilities are 'bad'. Again, keep in mind that this is divorced from the very real issue of discrimination - people may discriminate against those who have what they accept as 'bad traits', but surely this is something at least in principle avoidable (and thus in principle can be divorced from the issue, even if it's a very real and important consideration in real life when we face the real implications of these technologies coming about).

When considering all these possibilities, however, one might begin to see a slippery slope forming. If we can avoid severe mental and physical handicaps, not to mention fatal conditions or the horrible mental decay of Alzheimer's, can we not also improve 'minor imperfections'? Certainly none but the most superficial would seek to control hair or eye color, but it is not hard to imagine people trying to give their children the "best start" by seeking to maximize their intelligence capacity, physical strength/metabolism, perhaps even artistic abilities and so forth (to whatever extent all these things are affected by genetics; one certainly can't deny that genetics are often a minor role compared to the intricate eddies of cause and effect that affect a person's development). GATTACA paints just such a society, and there are certainly other examples of science fiction that explore these possibilities. Most of them portray such a future in a negative light, and it is not hard to see why.

Getting further and further away from the easy answers to the question of deadly conditions or Alzheimer's, one has a harder and harder time rationalizing the decision to change a future child's trait, and a lot more questions begin to pop up. For example, what traits are the best, or 'perfect', traits; or are there even such things? For that matter, do we need some 'defects' in order to remain individuals (i.e. is overcoming such obstacles necessary for growth and happiness)? Should parents be able to hold so much power over their children's future?

The last question is perhaps the easiest to respond to, even if a completely satisfactory answer is unavailable. Parents already hold a sort of random power over their children's future by choosing to combine and propagate their genes through reproduction. They may not have conscious control over each individual characteristic, but they are controlling their kid's "genetic destiny" merely by having their own limited set of genes and passing those on. For that matter, someday science will likely allow people to choose their own superficial characteristics (like hair and eye color, probably even things like strength and metabolism), say upon reaching adulthood, much as a person today can legally change their name upon growing up. This doesn't address the potential problems that come from suddenly allowing a population (and whatever their inherent biases may be) to choose the next generation's genetic characteristics, but it does perhaps serve to reduce the ethical dilemma of giving parents control over their children's genes.

The earlier two questions (are there perfect traits, and do we want 'defects'?) are infinitely more complex, however. Certainly many societies have convinced themselves that there is a sort of ideal human template (be it Plato's Greek philosopher-ruler warrior or the Nazi's blue-eyed blonde ubermensch), and future generations have looked back with hindsight and seen their mistakes, mistakes which all too often led to untold suffering. The idea that there is a perfect collection of traits is a dangerous one whether or not there is such a thing, because people might assume they have found it when they have not, and they certainly are likely to cause all sorts of problems in trying to bring about their 'ideal vision'. The more fundamental question though is whether it is a mistake to assume that there are 'best' characteristics. It seems easy to say that not having Alzheimer's is better than having it, but that rudimentary gradation may not apply to all genetic characteristics. After all, it may be that intuition is mistaken is suggesting to us that it is best to have the physical capability to be a talented musician, excellent athlete or fast reader (assuming, of course, that genetics has any sort of bearing on such things). Perhaps being good at all those things and others would bar one from experiencing certain character-building setbacks or from distinguishing one's self from everyone else; and so this question of perfection ties right into the question of whether what we consider as 'defects' (perhaps even severe mental and physical handicaps?) are in fact beneficial and desirable.

One can certainly point to historical examples of people who overcame severe obstacles to lead truly amazing lives (e.g. Stephen Hawking or Helen Keller). And most people can look back on their lives and count numerous occasions that at the time seemed like a horrible suffering to go through, but which allowed them to grow into the person they are. There must be, it seems, some value to experiencing a life of more than simple, easy bliss, and that speaks directly to the question at hand. However, one might argue that a life defined only by setbacks of the genetic sort is a life defined rather weakly, for surely one could find all sorts of other obstacles and challenges to experience and grow from in this vast universe even if one doesn't have, say, severe genetic handicaps. That's not to devalue the amazing and admirable accomplishments of Stephen Hawkings and Helen Kellers; I'm just pointing out that someone without ALS or deaf-blindness can still, I think, lead just as amazing and admirable a life. That is, I don't think it is necessary to have those conditions to lead a fulfilling life; therefore, getting rid of those conditions would not necessarily lead to a meaningless existence.

But how far can you go, removing 'defects' until the question of whether something is a defect is so blurred as to be unanswerable? For that matter, at what point do we cease to become individuals and begin to become automatons? The latter question is perhaps easily answered by dispelling the all too common myth of genetic determinism, which assumes that having certain genes means you will behave and think in a certain way. What we know from the science of genetics at this point suggests that genes are most definitely not the sole factor in behavior and thought. The fact that countless twins become vastly different people despite their identical DNA is disproof enough of genetic determinism. So even if we did end up with a society of 'template humans' (an unlikely chance, to be sure, and there are certainly other arguments against it), identity of genetics does not equal identity of personality or personhood. Nonetheless, there is something unsettling about the idea of removing a vast portion of individual genetic differences (even if we are quickly willing to give up deadly birth defects or diseases like Alzheimer's). Scientifically speaking, minimizing genetic diversity might lead to evolutionary problems in the future, such as the inability to select for beneficial traits when the environment changes. We may have already cut down the normal sort of natural selection that acts on wild animals by allowing the slow, the old and the weak to stay alive when they would have died in the wild, but natural selection is still certainly active today in a different form: there are still hereditary genetic traits which are selected for on other terms (like sexual selection for attractive bodies). But in a world with very little genetic diversity, natural selection might indeed be stopped altogether, and thus only artificial evolution (through technology) would be able to allow us humans to cope with a changing environment.

At any rate, it is clear that there are major questions about how far gene therapy should go, and the lines seem to blur the further one gets from, say, conditions that make infant death extremely likely (after all, a condition that simply made one more likely to die at an early age like forty is much less clear cut, since we all are born these days with a condition that dooms us to die eventually, the likelihood of dying around the average life-span time being pretty high). Nonetheless, the fact that there are certain apparently clear-cut cases like Alzheimer's tells of the importance of continuing gene therapy research. We may not wish to remove all obstacles from our lives, but it certainly seems reasonable to remove some of the worse, much as we have removed smallpox and other deadly diseases through science.

It seems that eugenics is today enjoying some sort of resurgence which will likely only continue to rise, so today more than ever it is important to think about these issues, even if we cannot always come up with a clear answer (when in life are there always clear answers?). It is only by moving forward thoughtfully that we can hope to avoid the pitfalls of the earlier Eugenics Movement and the ideological follies that it stemmed from, and give ourselves the chance to improve our lives without making things worse in the process.

Originally Written: 03-09-03
Last Updated: 03-09-03