Redeeming Eugenics?

Language Games, Inconsistencies and Principles

Washington, D.C., (Zenit.org) Denise Hunnell, MD | 2057 hits

In vitro fertilization (IVF) fails moral and ethical scrutiny on numerous fronts. It violates natural law by attempting to separate the procreative and unitive natures of human sexuality. It also dehumanizes children by reducing them to commodities manufactured for the benefit and pleasure of adults. This morally objectionable practice descends further into the ethical morass when pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) brings eugenics into the mix. PGD screens the DNA of the laboratory-formed embryos for both desirable and undesirable genetic traits. Embryos whose genetic composition is acceptable are cleared for implantation and eventual birth while the remaining embryos are destroyed. Eugenics used to cleanse a population of those judged genetically inferior would normally be widely condemned.

However, British bioethicists Eve Garrard of the University of Manchester and Stephen Wilkinson of Lancaster University recently published a series of four provocative essays to re-evaluate the ethics of eugenics as applied to assisted reproductive technology. The authors suggest that there are cases where it is both ethical and desirable to select embryos for implantation based on their genetic composition. They acknowledge that most people recoil from anything labeled as eugenics, but through their four essays they seek to demonstrate that arguments can be made in support of eugenics for the common good. It is enlightening to read these essays because they elucidate the most popular justifications used to promote the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Only when we understand these arguments can we effectively refute them.

Garrard and Wilkinson begin by looking at the language of eugenics. Because of the association of eugenics with the horrors of the Nazi regime, the term has developed a pejorative connotation. The authors suggest the word “eugenics” is also ambiguous because some only apply it to practices that are coercive or only include procedures that enhance desirable genetic qualities such as athleticism or intelligence. A broader use of the word labels all procedures, whether enhancing positive traits or diminishing negative ones, to be a form of eugenics, and no distinction is made between genetic selection done freely and that done under duress.

Without a common definition, a discussion of the ethics of eugenics is impossible. Therefore, Garrard and Wilkinson propose, “attempts to improve the human gene pool,” as a neutral and universally acceptable definition. However, with regards to PGD, this definition has a glaring omission. A complete definition of the eugenics of PGD should state, “Eugenics is any attempt to improve the human gene pool by destroying those whom others judge to diminish the human gene pool.” 

By focusing on the embryos selected and glossing over the embryos discarded, Garrard and Wilkinson ignore that PGD is ethically and morally objectionable because it rejects the intrinsic human dignity of every person and deems some human beings as more worthy of life than others.

These essays also assert that by preventing the birth of someone afflicted with a physical or mental disability, the level of suffering in the world is reduced. This argument presupposes that the suffering of an individual is so repugnant that non-existence is preferable to the potential affliction. In fact, Garrard and Wilkinson argue that this defense for PGD does not have to be limited to severe disabilities. They claim the world would be a better place if everyone were healthier and happier, so if it is possible to choose, parents should always elect to have the child who will maximize health and happiness. In truth, this justification for eugenics offers no benefits for the disabled since disabled individuals are destroyed. Instead of offering authentic compassion, eugenics merely shields the strong from having to witness suffering and weakness in others. 

The third essay in the series looks at the ethics of choosing a condition like deafness. Current British law forbids knowingly choosing embryos that will be disabled. However, deaf parents often hope for a child that is deaf because they want a child like themselves. The authors endorse this view and argue the law should not preclude such a possibility. This discussion is interesting for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that disability and suffering are in the eyes of the beholder. The decisions about what disabilities make an embryo unfit for life are entirely subjective and arbitrary. Parents with intact hearing may think that a deaf child would be an overwhelming burden while deaf parents view a deaf child as entirely normal. Should the life or death of an individual really be decided based on the whims and prejudices of others? Supporting PGD answers this question in the affirmative.

Another notable aspect of this essay is that it reveals the authors’ inconsistencies with regards to the personhood of the embryo. Garrard and Wilkinson claim that no harm is done if the embryo with the genes for deafness is implanted and the resulting child is deaf because the alternative is the destruction of this embryo and the non-existence of this particular child. However, Garrard and Wilkinson offer no similar recognition of personhood for the embryos not selected due to other genetic conditions. When the embryo selection results in a healthy child, they see the discarded embryos as nothing more than medical waste instead of as unique individuals whose lives were intentionally cut short.

The final essay addresses the issue of selecting embryos based on sex. The authors claim that if there is no cultural bias to influence the choice of one gender over the other, sex selection should be allowed because it can be assumed that the preferences of some parents for boys will be balanced by those who prefer girls. They also note that in countries like China and India where there is a strong bias for one gender over another, making prenatal sex selection illegal has done little to curb the population imbalance of males and females. While it is true that the legal status of sex-selection PGD may do little to influence the choices parents make when there is societal pressure to prefer one sex over another, the availability of sex-selection PGD reinforces the commodification of children. Parents place their order for a boy or a girl based on personal preferences in much the same way as one orders french fries instead of onion rings in the fast food line. The child is viewed as an acquisition obtained purely for the enhanced happiness of the parent.

In their essays, Garrard and Wilkinson try to argue that perceived benefits like the reduced population of persons with disabilities or the increased satisfaction of parents justify the selection of embryos based on their genetic characteristics. In doing so, they erroneously reject the concept of intrinsic human dignity and subject the weak and vulnerable to the judgments of the strong and powerful. No redefinition or rationalization can redeem the fundamentally evil nature of eugenics.

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Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of Human Life International, an international pro-life organization. She writes for HLI's Truth and Charity Forum.