Implementing Eugenics Properly

To what extent should eugenic principles inform our healthcare practices? As new technologies permitting the genetic enhancement of entire lineages and familial gene pools, for example in the development of CRISPR-Cas9, the concern that these tools will lead to a reemergence of eugenic attitudes has curbed their implementation. By analysing the case against the widespread usage of genetic enhancement technologies, I will demonstrate that eugenic practices aren’t naturally opposed to human rights, arguing that the basic goal which underlies the practice of maximising human functioning is not only permissible but in fact a moral imperative. Thus, so long as gene-enhancement technologies and eugenic principles are implemented with a conscientious understanding of basic human rights, we will possess a tool capable not only of curing illness, but destroying innate limitations upon freedom, opportunity, and welfare.

Does eugenics devalue the lives of those born with disability? Critics of eugenics will often cite the discriminatory outlook encouraged by the attempt to “increase human functioning”, arguing that the practice seeks to belittle disabled individuals. If one were to dedicate resources for the elimination of certain conditions, then they display an insidious attitude towards those who are disabled, contributing to a society in which genetic defects are increasingly stigmatised and deemed as unacceptable. Many will point to the history of eugenics in the 20th century West, especially in relation to Nazism, which caused homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled, as well as certain racial groups to be segregated, forcibly sterilised, and murdered so as to prevent the propagation of “degenerate genes”. How can equality and diversity be some of our core principles if at the same time we devalue and seek to reduce the number of lives which are different? In addition to concerns regarding our present treatment of disadvantaged lives, eugenics is also seen as a characteristic of dystopian societies. In the fictional world of Brave New World for example, class is not only a function of material wealth and social status but also of ingrained genetic difference. Within Huxley’s narrative, the lowest class, the Epsilons, are created from embryos which have their mental and physical functioning reduced, unable to do anything beyond menial slave labour, while the highest class of Alphas are created stronger, smarter, and more beautiful than any other, naturally occupying the most powerful and best payed positions. It is fear of this dystopia which motivates much of the outcry against eugenic principles, with many critics arguing that eugenics exacerbates social divides, systematising and categorising the value of human life in a frighteningly real way. Thus, the practice of eugenics is so widely abhorred because of its apparent perniciousness towards those unfortunate in their genetic and social circumstances, meaning its implementation into our egalitarian, rights-based societies must be resisted.

Is eugenics synonymous with genetic discrimination? I would argue that past “eugenics” movements such as those of Nazi Germany were certainly reprehensible and morally abhorrent. However, I would contend that this immorality did not come from the principle of eugenics itself, that of increasing the functioning of humanity through gene manipulation, but rather the machinery of its implementation. The underlying principle of eugenics, that a race free from disease and disability is better than one with these limitations, is objectively correct. It would be irrational to claim that disability isn’t a detriment to one’s life, and that living a life with sight, hearing, or an IQ above 60 isn’t better than one which lacks these abilities, just as it would be irrational to claim that a diseased, emaciated African child is healthier than an elite Australian athlete. Yet this admission doesn’t mean the African child doesn’t deserve to live, nor that the disabled don’t deserve to marry, to have children, or to live and interact with the healthy. Like medicine, eugenics does and should hold a pernicious and intolerant attitude towards diseases and disability, but this does not mean it possesses a pernicious and intolerant attitude towards the diseased and disabled.

There is a difference between a person and the disease which they suffer from, and it is the inability to distinguish person from illness by proponents and opposers of eugenics which leads to its misappropriation. Nazi eugenics was utterly repugnant because not only did it ascribe the status of “disability” to identity features which weren’t disabilities at all, for example homosexuality and non-Aryan ancestry, but also because it failed to see the mentally and physically disabled as anything beyond an embodiment of their condition. The Nazi ideology which permitted forced sterilisations, segregation, and genocide didn’t view its victims as humans, as subjects deserving of certain rights and freedoms; therefore, although the core principle which informed their practice of eugenics was sound, it was so distorted by systematic racism, unscientific thought, and nationalistic myth that it became one of the most horrific impingements of human rights in the 20th century. But the implementation of eugenics doesn’t need to be like this. We can acknowledge that disease is horrible and needs to be eliminated while still feeling sympathy towards the diseased, and we can argue that disability ought to be eliminated from future generations while still supporting existing disabled communities. Poor health should never be something that becomes naturalised or termed “acceptable”, but equally we can’t lose sight of the fact that those who do suffer from poor health aren’t responsible for it, that they still deserve sympathy, equal treatment, and the opportunity to flourish to the best of their ability. An ideal eugenics is one constantly striving towards a future free from the conditions which limit human growth and wellbeing, without being blind to the fact that one’s humanity persists despite disability and sickness.

In what ways then should genetic manipulation be used? As I have argued, genetic manipulation only becomes reprehensible when it impinges upon basic human rights, but in itself seems morally neutral. Therefore, certain familiar methods of implementing eugenic principles, such as forced sterilisation or selective genocide are clearly wrong. It is also apparent that inflicting disability, illness, and suffering on any individual is a violation of their right to safety and wellbeing. Therefore, negative eugenics, such as the purposeful degradation of another’s genome to produce a lower genetic class, ought to be a source of disgust.

Yet if we accept that it is wrong to inflict a disability upon someone, we must also consider whether it is permissible to allow a disease or disability where it could have been prevented. As genetic enhancement becomes safe and accessible, humanity will take on an onerous responsibility; we become responsible for every child that doesn’t have the ability to function at peak human ability, who is held back because they lack talent or genetic capability, because in a world where CRISPR-CAS9 is a viable and accessible option for potential parents, all notions of a random genetic lottery are lost. Yet the exhilarating potential for vastly enhanced human flourishing and health, the ability to eliminate all forms of ingrained inequality, to achieve a truly egalitarian meritocracy, serves to outweigh this terrifying burden. Thus, far from creating a state of ingrained inequality and divide, eugenics, when implemented with an understanding of human rights, is the only practice which promises to ensure an ideal of true fairness.

Here it is important to address common concerns regarding the equalisation of all individuals. Firstly, equality of talents doesn’t mean all humans will perform equally well in the future. People will still be differentiated by their attitudes and willingness to work. However, they are distinguished by their character as people rather than the nature of their animal bodies. Secondly, equal genetic opportunity does not entail a loss of individuality. Medicine has led to a world in which we are winning the war against disease, a world of fewer illnesses and stronger immune systems, but this convergence of human health at a higher standard does not impinge upon individuality, or at least not any individuality worth having. Diversity in regards to what we love or believe in, our aspirations and our principles, in short, everything which says the most about us as people, remains unaffected by the striving towards equalising genetic health. Thirdly, this drive towards equality does not permit us to purposefully curb greater genetic potential, purposefully bringing healthier and stronger genomes down to a standardised level. As I have argued above, any form of negative eugenics is morally reprehensible. An ideal genetic equalisation seeks only to raise the standard of the baseline rather than maintain human health at a single constant.

I have argued that the moral repugnance of past eugenic practices arise not from the principle that motivated it but rather the pernicious and unscientific attitude which distorted it. While gene manipulation is so often touted as a characteristic of inhuman dystopias, in reality it is the only way to achieve the egalitarianism we hold as an ideal. Therefore, removing the stigma around the term “eugenics” is the first necessary step towards a form of absolute freedom, a future in which one’s opportunity is determined not by biology but moral character.

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Eric Wang

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