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Eugenics Has Become Personal

December 9, 2010, 6:14 PM

We’re repulsed these days by the tyrannical idea that biotechnological enhancement is really eugenics—or a way of improving the human “herd” the way we’ve “improved” so many of the other species. Certainly every such eugenics scheme of the past has been authoritatively discredited.  Nobody who reads Plato’s Republic these days, for example, actually thinks it’s just to have government secretly control marriage and reproduction to improve the genetic quality of citizens.  We think of people as persons, not citizens; we know they’re not expendable parts of some civic whole.  More than ever, we think of choices concerning marriage, sexual partners, and having babies as matters of personal autonomy.  The Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey has said, for example, that women, like men, are free to define their own personal identities, and so they’re free not to have babies, even babies already in their wombs.

We also, of course recoil in horror from allegedly Darwinian Progressivist efforts to sterilize the unfit to improve the competitive edge of the species, and even more from the more horrifying Nazis’ efforts to strengthen and purify the racial identity of the nation.  And even those who notice that it couldn’t be good that the most accomplished and sophisticated people with the highest I.Q.s and all that aren’t reproducing much these days, while those who seem to be a bit short on genetic gifts are doing so in larger numbers, don’t think government should do anything to remedy that situation

Biotechnological enhancement will be different from the old eugenics in all sorts of obvious ways.  It will, first of all, really work by transforming nature or as part of conscious and volitional evolution.  It won’t be another ridiculous effort to consciously direct merely natural or impersonal evolution.  It will also be directed toward what’s best for every human person.  The goal will always be personal or not in any sense coercive or collective.   The result must secure the consent of any person intelligently concerned with his or her security or flourishing.  Everyone agrees these days that even babies to be genetically modified are ends in themselves.  That means the enhancement must be good for the baby as a person and not as part of a family or country or anything else.

We don’t even think that the parent’s personal opinion about what’s best for the child should be the standard. Their judgment must be reasonable from the child’s personal view.  It’s that kind of “reasonability test” that allows courts, for example, to force the Jehovah’s Witness parents to allow their children to have blood transfusions.  No parent will be able to choose enhancements that will condemn the child to an unnecessarily risky or painful life.  Surely parents won’t be able to choose deafness for their child in order that he or she be totally integrated into the deaf community to which her deaf parents belong.

There are limits to indulging the parental desire that the child be like them. Some have to do with health and safety, others with restricting genetically the child’s freedom to choose his or her own “lifeplan.”  The point of enhancement is to secure the person as far as possible against alien—meaning first of all natural but also finally political and parental—determination.

“While liberal eugenics is a less dangerous doctrine than the old eugenics,” the communitarian Sandel complains, “it is also less idealistic.”  The old eugenics, “for all its folly and darkness,” aspired “to improve humankind, or to promote the collective welfare of whole societies.”  The new eugenics “shrinks from collective ambitions…of social reform.”  Its more modest and obviously selfish goal is to “arm” children “for success in a competitive society.”  Its goal, in other words, is nothing more than personal, and so has nothing do with what’s best for “humankind” or even a whole society.[i]  “People want genetic technology,” libertarian Virginia Postrel explains, “because they expect to use it for themselves, to help themselves and their children.”

A monstrous downside of the old eugenics was the thought that persons with a low quality of life don’t even deserve to live. The new eugenic intention seems to be not only pro-life but pro-quality of every life. The choice will be for every person against nature’s randomness and indifference.


Eugenics Has Become Personal

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