Towards a coercive utopia

Just over 60 years ago, at the Nuremberg Trials, the world
repudiated the eugenic policies of the Third Reich which had sought
to eliminate “life worthy of reproduction”. Has the horror of
this era been forgotten? Why are ethicists once again arguing that
the human race needs to be improved through better breeding?

Consider the recent remarks of Oxford professor Julian Savulescu,
an Australian who studied under the notorious Peter Singer. In a
recent article entitled “Breeding Perfect babies” he makes the
case for genetic engineering and designer babies. He argues that “we
have a moral obligation to select the embryo with the best chance of
the best life”. He says new developments in testing for genetic
disease mean anyone can now pick and choose the characteristics they
want for their baby.

He explains, “The AU$3,440 test, called karyomapping, which
should be available as early as next year, will allow couples at risk
of passing on gene defects to conceive healthy children using IVF
treatment. The ‘genetic MoT’ will transform the range of
inherited disorders that can be detected. Currently only 2% of the
15,000 known genetic conditions can be detected in this way. Not only
can it test for muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and Huntington's
disease, but it can be used for testing for the risk of developing
heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's in later life.”

Now it is one thing to think about screening for certain genetic
diseases. But Savulescu is quite happy to take all this much further.
“We should want our children to begin life with best genetic start.
People worry that this is a slide down a slope to creating designer
babies, to testing for eye colour, height, mental and physical
abilities. But we should embrace the selection of such non-disease
traits, if they contribute to a child having better chance of a
better life. Why wouldn't we choose an embryo which will grow into a
better ability at maths or music. Indeed, we should give our children
the greatest range of gifts possible.”

This is really all about creating designer babies who are made to
order for adults with selective tastes. It is indeed about playing
God, and determining just who is allowed to live, and who will not be
allowed to live.

Yet Savulescu simply dismisses any ethical concerns people might
have about all this: “People worry that this is like the Nazis
weeding out the weak and inferior. Or that it will result in a two
tiered society of the genetically privileged and the genetically
underprivileged, as in the film Gattaca. But these fears are
misplaced provided we focus on testing for genes that make our
children's lives go predictably better. Nature has no mind to
fairness or equality. Some people are born with horribly short
genetic straws. Enabling couples to choose the best of the embryos
will reduce natural inequality.”

But what he is proposing is exactly the stuff of Nazi Germany and Gattaca. It is all about the creation of a superior race,
based on genetics and selective breeding. Too bad about those who
won’t be able to afford all this high-biotech utopia. They will
simply become the genetic underclass that Gattaca so rightly
warns about.

And the fact that nature deals us all an uneven hand is no
argument for genetic manipulation, selection and the creation of a
perfect race. This is problematic for numerous reasons. Let me
mention just a few.

A major problem is this: what do parents do with all the genetic
information provided by the doctor? The truth is, many of the
diseases tested for have no known cures at present. So the usual
solution is that the doctor advises an abortion. Indeed, many doctors
and clinics will not do genetic testing unless the couple gives prior
consent to having an abortion.

But as Australian ethicist Anthony Fisher reminds us, scientists
should focus on curing such diseases rather than eliminating people
with the condition. Genetic screening can easily lead to selective
breeding and selective abortion. It can easily lead us to a return to

Genetic reductionism

But there may be even greater problems. It seems that the very
notions of human rights and human dignity are under threat. The new
genetics is in many ways related to the reductionism of the human
person. That is, the more we come to know about the human genome, the
more we are tempted to explain everything in terms of genetics. While
we certainly can be understood in part by our genetic makeup, we are
more than the sum of our genes. American bioethicist Leon Kass puts
it this way:

“One of the most worrisome but least appreciated aspects of the
godlike power of the new genetics is its tendency to ‘redefine’ a
human being in terms of his genes. Once a person is decisively
characterized by his genotype, it is but a short step to justifying
death solely for genetic sins.”

Not only is this whole process dehumanising, but it means that
certain technocrats will be making decisions which will have huge
moral and social ramifications. As C.S. Lewis warned with great
prescience years ago in The Abolition of Man: “What we call
Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men
over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

He went on to say, Man’s
conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are
realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon
billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of
power on Man’s side. Each new power won
by man is a power over man as well.”

No one denies that nature deals us a bad hand at times, and there
certainly is a place for taking steps to correct some of this. People
born short-sighted obviously can make use of corrective prescription
glasses. And there may well be a place for genetic testing for
certain diseases and defects.

But the whole enterprise is fraught with danger, and the desire to
move on to designer babies, complete with improved musical and
mathematical abilities -- as Savulescu desires -- is surely putting
us on the wrong road. Indeed, we have travelled down that road
before, and it led to unimaginable cruelty.

The path to a coercive utopia is often paved with good intentions.
We all want to live longer and healthier lives. But as Leon Kass
reminds us, “It is not just survival, but survival of what that matters... [S]imply to covet a prolonged life span for ourselves
is both a sign and a cause of our failure to open ourselves to this –
or any other – purpose. It is probably no accident that it is a
generation whose intelligentsia proclaim the meaninglessness of life
that embarks on its indefinite prolongation and that seeks to cure
the emptiness of life by extending it.”

Quite so. As we increasingly lose our understanding of what it is
to be human, and what is really important in life, we increasingly
look to play God, either to extend our own physical lives, or that of
our offspring. But there are right ways and wrong ways of doing this.
Denying God, and/or seeking to take his place is not be the right way
to proceed.

Bill Muehlenberg is a lecturer in
ethics and philosophy at several Melbourne theological colleges and a
PhD candidate at Deakin University.


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