Bioethicist Pushes Us Toward Our Eugenic Duty

Posted by Anna Hamilton, Biopolitical Times Guest Contributor September 6, 2012
Biopolitical Times

Julian Savulescu, the Oxford University professor of ethics who has kept busy for a decade or more promoting his vision of “breeding better babies,” has taken his campaign to the UK edition of Reader’s Digest. His short article in the September issue, titled “It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies,” casts the bad-boy argument he relishes in a conventional and reassuring tone.

In the past, Savulescu’s pronouncements have provoked headlines including "Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction" and “Only Breed Smart Babies: Ethicist.” The Reader’s Digest piece prompted this variation in The Telegraph: “Genetically engineering 'ethical' babies is a moral obligation, says Oxford professor.” The largely sympathetic article was picked up by dozens of other UK newspapers.

Savulescu’s vision is a genetic pick-and-mix in which parents choose to edit out certain “personality flaws” in order to obtain “ethically better children.”

Fancy a child who’s likely to be altruistic? Then look for a version of the COMT gene. Want them to be faithful and enjoy stable relationships? Avoid a variant of AVPR1A. Steer clear of a certain type of the MA0A gene, too—it’s linked to higher levels of violence in children who often suffer abuse or deprivation.

Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and dispositions to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children. They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others.

One tired argument that Savulescu marshals is that to order up a future child’s personality and character is no big deal, since we’re already doing similar kinds of selection:

We’re routinely screening embryos and foetuses for conditions such as cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome, and there’s little public outcry.

This is an odd statement from a literate person who lives in a country in which a government agency – the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority – has conducted a number of “public consultation” on controversial matters such as embryo screening, and the media regularly reports on them. And it’s difficult to believe that Savulescu is unaware of the many articles, books and conferences in which disability rights activists have voiced their concerns about prenatal testing. (See, for an early and classic example, The Disability Rights Critique of Prenatal Genetic Testing).

Savulescu takes head on, as from a Rhetoric 101 standpoint he must, the question of whether breeding smarter babies or ethically superior babies should be considered a form of eugenics. He answers that “what was especially objectionable about this [20th-century eugenics] movement was the coercive imposition of a state vision for a healthy population.”

But a new eugenics would be different, he says:  “Modern eugenics, from testing for diseases to deciding whether you want a girl or boy, is voluntary.”

Here is where Savulescu’s oscillation between two kinds of language – “choice” and “fancy” on one side, “obligation” and “duty” on the other – becomes especially perplexing, and more than a little problematic. He says that parents should have the choice to select against possible flaws, but also argues that when genetic selection (or genetic engineering) become more widely available, parents will have an obligation to use them to improve society.

How and when does an apparently optional “choice” become an “obligation?” I hate to get all Handmaid’s Tale here, but I cannot help wondering how such an obligation might be enforced. Intense social pressure? Insurance company requirements? Will prospective parents have to assess their reproductive plans to make sure their children will be “ethical” and able to contribute to society?

Given mainstream culture’s past and current attitudes toward a variety of differences and disabilities, it seems likely to me that Savulescu’s vision could lead us to incredibly dark places.