Does Individuality Save Eugenics?

By Dov Fox

So asks medical historian Nathaniel Comfort in today’s Scientific America, echoing Ross Douthat’s New York Times inquiry into Eugenics, Past and Future. Comfort and Douthat are skeptical of the view, articulated by an emerging class of academics, that individual parents should use reproductive technologies to select or enhance certain genetic traits in their children.

“Hitler gave eugenics a bad name,” is how I expressed this view in the first scholarly examination of that ideal, “but there is nothing objectionable as such about the eugenic ambition to produce people of a particular type.” Comfort illuminates two centuries of developments in the medicine, society, and culture of “eugenics.” But he offers little analysis of why individuality fails to “save” the new eugenics, beyond his two assertions, heard often in these debates, that it risks “unforeseeable consequences” and might “dissolve into a species of collective eugenics.” What more might be said in support of this second suggestion, that a political theory that privileges freedom, equality, and fairness cannot accommodate individual choice about offspring characteristics?

Those who advocate for “liberal eugenics” are right to observe the moral resemblance between genetic engineering (at least after conception) and childrearing practices that we commonly accept. But this analogy is incomplete. Some childrearing practices, like abuse and neglect, our liberal society forbids, after all, while others we compel. If our commitment to offspring autonomy is important enough to mandate health care and basic education for children, that very same commitment is important enough to require safe and effective genetic enhancement of analogous general-purpose traits such as resistance to disease and general cognitive functioning. (To clarify, I offer this analogy in an effort to expose what I see as certain untenable implications of liberal eugenics, which I have criticized on more straightforward grounds herehere, here, and here.)

Political philosophers have taken me to task on that analogy’s own terms, however. Teun Dekker has insightfully objected that the case for requiring general-purpose genetic enhancements does not go far enough, because it stills allow parents discretion to choose for offspring traits that support certain life plans but not others. Such exercise of genetic control by one generation over the next, he argues, requires justification that liberalism does not permit individuals to ground on their own ideals about which beliefs and goals are worth seeking in order for their unborn children to live well. How much free choice would a truly “liberal” eugenics afford to parents? Can liberalism’s best answer provide a satisfying answer to the question of genetic enhancement? Does individuality save eugenics?

Dov Fox

Dov Fox

Dov Fox is Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Health Law Policy and Bioethics at the University of San Diego School of Law, where he has been named Herzog Endowed Scholar for exceptional scholarship and teaching. He also won BIOCOM's Life Science Catalyst Award for "significant contributions to human health through research, discovery, and entrepreneurship." His work has been featured in CNN, ABC, NPR, NBC, Reuter’s, Bloomberg, Slate, Daily Beast, Today Show, Boston Globe, and Washington Post. His latest book project, "Birth Rights and Wrongs," is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

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