The history of eugenics is intertwined with the history of genetics. The term “genetics” was established in 1905 by William Bateson. Half a century previously, Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics”, which is Greek for “well-born” or “good genesis”, though Galton did not attribute the genesis of the idea to the Greeks. Eugenic history began with the ancient Greeks, and, of course, is still around today. However, today we have technology that was previously not able to be conceptualized due to past people’s knowledge. This article will give a brief overview of eugenics throughout history up to the modern day.
Eugenics in ancient Greece
The idea of eugenics was first formulated by Aristotle. Aristotle imagined a rigged lottery (of course those who drew tickets did not know the lottery was rigged). The reasoning for rigging the lottery was simple: they could prevent so-called undesirable people from breeding while promoting births for people they want to breed. Plato only wanted those in the Greek upper-classes to mate (what was termed the “guardian class), men aged 25 and women aged 20—so they can birth children in their primes.
After the children were born, they were taken from their parents and held in special nurseries. Children who were Bron defective were” hidden away”, which could be a euphemism for infanticide (a form of which was reportedly practiced in Sparta where they left newborns at the city limits so the weak could die and the strong could live). Fit young men who chose not to breed had to pay a fine which went to the temple of Hera which was based on their class.
Aristotle had similar views to Plato. He, too, wanted the State to be in charge of the birthing process. He wanted both sexes to marry at their primes, in his eyes, aged 37 for men and 18 for women, while performing infanticide on babies born with deformities and aborting children if couples have too many. (See Galton, 1998 for a review of eugenic policies in ancient Greece.) (See also Genetics and the Decline of Sparta.)
The argument for autonomy
A simple argument can be erected against any and all State coercion to do something: the argument for the rejection of State authority (Wolff, 1970). The argument can be formulated thus:
P1. We have a higher-order interest in autonomy.
P2. If something promotes our higher-order interests, we have a duty to do it.
C1. We have a duty to be autonomous (modus ponens, P1, P2).
P3. If we have a duty to be autonomous, then autonomy requires that we decide what to do with ourselves.
C2. We should decide what to do for ourselves (modus ponens, C1, P3).
P4. If we accept the authority of others, then we are not autonomous.
C3. We should not accept the authority of others (modus tollens, C1, P4).
P5. If we accept the authority of law, then we accept the authority of others.
C4. We should not accept the authority of the law (modus tollens, C3, P5).
The argument is about rejecting State authority as a whole, but, of course, we can substitute. “If we accept the authority of [law X in regard to eugenic policy P] then we accept the authority of others[‘ thoughts of what to do with our lives]”. Thus we should disallow State eugenic policies.
Eugenics in ancient Rome
Like most other ancient civilizations, the ancient Romans practiced abortion and infanticide. Archaeological analyses uncovered a well, and in the well were dozens of little skeletons, implying that the Romans disposed of the babies of prostitutes (these were found in bordellos) because they were unwanted.
The Romans “deemed people with disabilities as sub-human“, with the abandonment of the baby being standard practice—which lends more credence to the baby wells of the Romans in the bordellos.
Eugenics in China
The Chinese Maternal and Infant Health Care Law states that if the screening of an embryo reveals that the couple in question has a chance of birthing a defective baby then they should agree to take contraceptive measures (see Guo, 2006 for a review). Further, if they already married then they must take long-term contraceptive measures. These measures are supported in China, since they have about 50 million disabled persons (see MacKeller and Bechtel, 2016).
Eugenics in Germany
The ideology of eugenics was present in Germany long before Hitler came to power. It was written about by numerous authors, including Nietzsche. “The first chair of eugenics was given in 1923 at the University of Munich to the geneticist Fritz Lenz” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016). Lenz promoted ‘racial hygeine’—he wanted Nordic traits to proliferate over others traits. He eventually joined the National Socialist party in 1937. The Nazis sterilized about 350,000 people between 1934 and 1939. This, then, led to the construction of a euthanasia program in 1939 called the “T-4 program”—‘Tiergartenstrasse 4″. The order allowed physicians to grant so-called ‘mercy killings’ to those deemed incurable as gauged by the current medical technologies. All euthanasia programs, however, were halted once word got out to the general German public. The National Socialists, thus, practiced both negative eugenics (selecting against people who they deemed unfit to have children) and positive eugenics (selecting for people who they deemed fit to have children).
The horrors of WWII Germany, though, caused great revile in every aspect of any kind of genetic modifications/selecting against/for any traits in humans. After the defeat of the Axis powers, in general, the public’s attitudes towards eugenics sharply changed.
In reaction to Nazi abuses, postwar politicians and members of the scientific community denounced the notion of any inherent inequality between human individuals.
After the Second World War, however, there was a significant drop of eugenic sterilizations of those with mental disabilities in response to a decline in support for eugenic policies as a whole. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 37-38)
Eugenics in Norway
In Norway, sterilization was first mentioned in 1927. They eventually enacted a law in 1934 based on the facts that parents could not look after their children and hereditary diseases. This continued all the way up until 1977, when the rights of the individual in question were considered. Though, unlike WWII Germany, there was no State-sanctioned eugenic policy, and each case was taken on a case-by-case basis.
Between the years 1934 and 1977, about 41,000 people were sterilized, with a majority consenting to the practice—about 75 percent were enacted on women (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 39). However, between the years of 1943-1945, a law for the protection of the race was enacted in Norway while the Germans occupied the country—which was removed from law after Nazi Germany fell. However, in 1977, sterilizations changed from a way to control the people to a means of one’s ability to choose to limit their own reproduction.
Eugenics in Sweden
Sweden was the only Nordic country to have a national eugenics society. One of the leaders in eugenic thinking in Sweden in the early 1900s Arthur Engbert thought that we register pedigrees of our dogs and horses, so why not do so for ourselves (Swedes). Sweden, like Norway, enacted a sterilization act in 1934, though it only addressed sterilizations without the consent of the person; they did it to people who were legally incompetent. However, in 1941, this act was widened to include individuals with heritable physical disabilities. Women could also, of course, choose to sterilize themselves if they had too many children.
Thus, from 1935, when sterlizations were often being undertaken for eugenic reasons until 1975 when they were generally considered for medical reasons and the legislation was eventually overturned, Sweden sterlized nearly sixty-three thousand persons. Up to a quarter of these persons were mentally disabled. Though there was never a systematic sterilization program of mentally disabled individuals on the basis of political descisions or administrative instructions, the sterilizations seemed to develop on their own in the context of what was allowed. More than 90 per cent of these procedures were undertaken on women, but many individuals considered as having an antisocial way of life also felt the effects of somewhat coerced sterlizations. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 41)
Eugenics in the Soviet Union
Eugenics in the Soviet Union started with the biologists Aleksandr Serebrovskii in 1929. He recommended that artificial insemination be introduced to the populace in order to control who gives birth and who does not. He wrote (quoted in MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 41):
With the current state of artficial insemination technology…one talented and valuable produce could have up to one thousand children…In these conditions, human selection would make gigantic leaps forward. And various women and whole communes would then be proud…of their success and achievements in this undoubtedly most astonishing field — the production of new forms of human beings.
However, Stalin did not take to these proposals since, in his eyes, these types of eugenic policies contradicted Marxist ideology by claiming that human characters were determined by biology and not social/environmental ‘realities’. This, then, led to the deaths of many geneticists in the Soviet Union. (There are many good books on this matter, though my favorite is Lysenko’s Ghost.)
Eugenics in the United Kingdom
Sybil Gotto founded the Eugenics Education Society (EES) in 1907 in the UK to voice his concerns of the lower classes outbreeding the higher classes—what was perceived as a demographic problem. Francis Galton was the first Chair of this Society. So the EES proposed to prevent lower classes from breeding and promoting only breeding for the middle and higher classes, which would improve the whole society by excising the lower classes and replacing them with middle and upper classes. (There has to be a ‘bottom’ everywhere; so there still would exist ‘lower classes.’)
Winston Churchill was even quoted as saying persons in Britain “should, if possible, be segregated under proper conditions so that their curse diet with them and was not transmitted to future generations” (quoted in MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 43). After Churchill stated this, three years later, the UK Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 was established, and people deemed idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded or morally defective were detained in an effort to control the breeding of the population.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 was considered as allowing ‘soft’ forms of eugenics, it was stated that people would abort for even minor physical anomalies. Though, of course, this did end up occurring, lending credence to said ‘fears.’
Eugenics in America
Finally, the eugenics movement really became ‘scientific’ in America in the late 1800s to early 1900s. In fact, the first recorded eugenic experiment took place in America, at the so-called Perfectionist Community in Oneida, New York. The leader of this community was named John Noyes—a radical Christian, who believed that Christians had a moral responsibility to promote ‘moral perfection.’ He was influenced, of course, by Darwin and Galton. Between the years of 1869 and 1879, Noyes organized a campaign to get the so-called best to propagate. Members chosen to propagate were chosen on the basis of characters like ‘intelligence’, physical traits, and, of course, the commitment to Noyes’ vision (of a utopia). Fifty-eight children were born, but the project was soon abandoned.
Numerous US states passed laws barring certain people from marriage—imbeciles, epileptics, or those with feeble-minds. (See, for example, this article on Connecticut eugenic policies.) The Connecticut law was, in fact, the first eugenic policy passed in the country. These types of policies even were used to prevent immigration into America (see Dolmage, 2018 for a review).
Further, during the first 70 years of the 20th century, “eugenic policies affected up to sixty-four thousand Americans. But this happened primarily through measures such as forced sterilization. The 1907 Compulsory Sterilization Law of Indiana was the first to enact such legislation, though the public at large, was generally unaware of the initiative. According to this law, every institution that housed ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles’ could authorize medical personnel ‘to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation’. This legislation was replicated by other states to such an extent that, by 1927, an estimated twenty-four states had enacted similar laws. Of these, the state of California was one of the most active, performing 4,636 sterilizations and castrations between 1907 and 1925, reaching a total of 9,930 by 1935″ (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 46-47).
Then in 1927, a woman named Carrie Buck challenged the state of Virginia when a physician said that her sterilization would be for the ‘good of society.’ The high court of Virginia denied her claim, so she took it to the SCOTUS—known as Buck v. Bell. SCOTUS went 8-1 against Buck, saying that Buck “was a threat and danger to the genetic stability of society” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47). So, the highest Court in the Land sided with the physician and not the woman. Eugenic policies were hardly opposed until 1974, with the case Relf v. Weinberger. The case came about due to to “the malicious, undesired sterilization of sisters Mary Alice and Minnie Reif” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47). In the ruling, it was stated that mentally competent adults had to give their consent to sterilization, but this did not become standard until 1981.
Ultimately, formal acknowledgment of the ethically unacceptable abuse of sterilizations in the United States only came in 2003.
The international influence of American eugenic policies shpould not be underestimated. The Nazi government regularly cited a publication that touted favorable results of the sterilization policy in the state of California as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were both feasible and humane. At the Nuremberg trials following the Second World War, Nazi administrators accused of war crimes actually justified the mass-sterilization of hundreds of thousands of people in less than a decade by referencing the United States success as their inspiration. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47-48)
Eugenic thinking has been with us at least since the ancient Greeks and the idea has mutated over the times with different types of policies and measures each society has taken to ensure that their ‘genetic hygiene’ was as good as possible.
Eugenic thinking is, of course, still around today. Most recently, the Chinese using CRISPR—on twin girls—to create the first genetically modified humans, who were born this month. It is important to note that these claims have not been verified by other scientists nor have they been published yet. I am not too surprised at the outrage of this—if it did indeed happen (many people are skeptical that it did). I know some will say ‘Ethics don’t matter when the Chinese don’t care about ethics and look at what they’re doing!!!’ (If they truly did do this.) However, just because people disregard something doesn’t mean it does not exist. (The scientist, He Jiankui, is currently under investigation amidst questions of whether or not what he supposedly did was ethical and legal.)
Understanding the history of eugenics—the hows and whys—can prevent us from repeating past mistakes.
(For some info on the supposed Chinese gene-edited baby, see China’s gene-edited babies will push bioethics into a dark new era and A Sobering Moment for thoughts on the supposed gene-editing.)
To be a realist about race is to hold that racial categories pick out real kinds in nature. (Smith, 2015: 43; Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference Race in Early Modern Philosophy)
Claims from biological racial realists are simple: Racial categories pick out real kinds in nature. If racial categories pick out real kinds in nature, then race surely exists.
Racial groups—or groups taken to be racial groups—characterize three conditions from Hardimon (2017): C1: they are distinguished from other groups by patterns of visible physical features; C2: the members are linked by common ancestry which is peculiar to that group; and C3: they derive from a distinct geographic location.
Justifying C1 is simple: groups taken to be ‘racial’ are distinguished from other groups on the basis of physical characters. Someone from Europe looks different than someone from Africa; someone from Africa looks different than someone from Asia; someone from Asia looks different than someone from the Pacific Islands; someone from the Pacific Islands looks different than the Natives of America. Groups taken to be ‘racial’ have different facial features; they have different morphology. Thus, since there are heritable differences between groups taken to be ‘racial’, then this is evidence that race does indeed exist.
It’s important to also discuss what C1 does not demand: it does not demand that racial groups be distinguished by each of their visible physical features; it does not demand that each visible physical features of members of a race be identical; it allows skin color to vary just as much within race as it does between race; finally, it also allows great variation in hair color, skull morphology and skin color. Thus, since Hardimon’s concept is ‘vague’, then one might be able to say that it is “clinal” (that is, these differences vary by geography). But “Physical anthropologist Frank Livingstone’s well-known adage “There are no races, only clines” overlooks the possibility that, logically speaking, races might be clines” (Hardimon, 2017: 38). The claim “There are no races, only clines” is one that is oft-repeated against the reality of biological races.
C2, very simply, shows that differences in visible physical features are not the only things that delineate race: race is also defined in terms of ancestry and is therefore essential to the concept of race (I’d argue that ancestry is essential to any argument that attempts to establish races as biologically real). Races are, clearly, morphologically demarcated ancestry groups. The justification for C2 is thus: it is intuitive. Examples of race articulated in the past also bore this very basic concept: Linneus’ europeaus, asiaticus, afer, and americanus; Blumenbach’s Mongoloid, Caucasoid, Ethiopian, Malay and American; UNESCO’s Negroid, Mongoloid, and Caucasoid (deployed most famously by JP Rushton); and the Office of Management and Budget’s American Indian (or Alaskan native), black, Asian, whites, native Hawaiians (Pacific Islanders) (see Spencer, 2014 for a treatment of the OMB’s views on race and his ‘radical solution to the race problem’).
Now, finally, C3: the condition that groups taken to be ‘racial’ must derive from a distinct geographic location. Race, and the names used to refer to race, and so “The use of typonyms in the naming of racial groups suggests that the thinkers who chose these names were thinking of race as a geographical grouping” (Hardimon, 2017: 50). So, C1 and C2 have been established. This leaves us with C3. Races differ in patterns of visible physical features; these differences are explained by differences in geographic location. If race R1 derives from geographic location G1, and G1 is distinct from G2 which race R2 inhabits, then races R1 and R2 will look physically different.
Thus the groups that we think of when we think about race are groups that genetically transmit heritable characters to their offspring which then correspond to differences in geographic ancestry. So groups that satisfy C1-C3 are ‘races’, in the normal sense of the word. Groups that satisfy C1-C3 are articulated in Hardimon’s (2017) populationist race concept using Rosenberg et al’s (2002) data, and these are, largely, the same groups that Blumenbach pointed out centuries ago (Spencer, 2014).
The Visible Physical Features of Minimalist Race Are Racial
The visible physical features of minimalist race that correspond to geographical ancestry count as “racial” because they are defining features of minimalist races. They no more need to be correlated with normatively important features to be properly counted as racial then minimalist races need to be characterized by normatively important features to be properly counted as races. Just as the concept of minimalist race deflates the concept of RACE, so too it deflates the concept of RACIAL. Visible physical features that correspond to geographical ancestry are eo ipso racial. (Hardimon, 2017: 52)
Hardimon (2017: 99) also articulates one of the best definitions of race I have come across:
A race is a subdivision of Homo sapiens—a group of populations that exhibits a distinctive pattern of genetically transmitted phenotypic characters that corresponds to the group’s geographic ancestry and belongs to a biological line of descent initiated by a geographically separated and reproductively isolated founding population.
Since Hardimon’s views are new (published in 2017), there are no replies to his argument—excpet one, by Spencer (2018). Spencer doesn’t take to two of Hardimon’s claims: that (1) that the minimalist concept of race is the ordinary concept of race and (2) that minimalist races are biologically real. He grants (1) until Hardimon provides evidence that the minimalist concept of race is the ordinary concept of race. (2), on the other hand, Spencer attacks.
His objection to (2) comes down to the simple fact that 13/17 of the different conceptions of racial groups discussed by Linnaeus, Blumenbach, the OMB, and UNESCO do not fit C1-C3 (Blumenbach’s races do fit C1-C3). Spencer (2018) states that “there’s no ancestor that Eurasians share that’s not also shared by East Asians, Oceanians, and Native Americans […] there’s no ancestor that East Asians share that’s not also shared by Oceanians and Native Americans.” (See Duda and Zrzavy, 2016.) We need to be clear on what Hardimon means by “ancestry.” The dictionary definition of “ancestry” is thus: “one’s family or ethnic descent.” On this definition of “ancestry”, groups taken to be races do have “distinct ancestry“, so defined, and so, Hardimon’s (2017) C2 does indeed hold.
Biological racial realism “should” mean “race is a geniuine kind in biology.” Take the argument from Spencer (2011: 24):
(1) The meaning of ‘biological racial realism’ in the race debate should be a metaphysically minimal interpretation of important scientific kindhood that also does the most justice to what counts as an important scientific kind.
(2) A “metaphysically minimal” interpretation of important scientific kindhood is one that does not adopt unnecessary and contentious metaphysical assumptions.
(3) The interpretation of important scientific kindhood that does the most justice to what counts as an important scientific kind is the one that best captures epistemically important scientific kinds—or ‘EIS kinds’ for short.
(4) The candidates for important scientific kindhood in the race debate are natural kinds, naturali kinds, naturalu kinds, naturalp kinds, realp biological kinds, reali biological kinds, and geniuine kinds.
(5) No kind of kind in the race debate is both metaphysically minimal and does a better job of capturing EIS kindhood than genuine kinds.
(6) Therefore, the meaning of ‘biological racial realism’ in the race debate should be ‘race is a genuine kind in biology’.
Spencer has good critiques of Hardimon’s minimalist/populationist race view, but it does not hold.
Even if we allow Spencer’s views on Hardimon’s arguments for the existence of race to hold, Spencer himself has articulated a sound argument for the existence of race. In his 2014 paper A Radical Solution to the Race Problem, Spencer (2014) shows that Americans defer to the US Census on matters of race; the US Census defers to the OMB; the OMB refers to “sets of” populations—blacks, whites, Asians, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders; these “sets of” populations are not kinds (like what Hardimon argues his racial classifications are); therefore, races are not ‘kinds’, the term ‘race’ refers to sets of population groups. Thus, according to Spencer (2014), race refers to “proper names” for population groups, not “kinds”.
Both of Hardimon’s and Spencer’s arguments show that race is a biological reality; they both show that biological racial realism is true. Their concepts pick out real kinds in nature (Smith, 2016: 43).
Philosopher Justin Smith, in his book 2015 book Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference Race in Early Modern Philosophy articulates a Hardimonian argument for the existence our habits of distinguishing between human populations:
Now if scientific taxonomy builds on folk taxonomy, and if racial classification builds on this in turn, there might be some basis for supposing that something about the modern habit of distinguishing between human groups on racial grounds is more deep-seated than we have acknowledged it to be. (Smith, 2015: 47)
The reason why there “might be some basis for supposing that something about the modern habit [which is not truly modern; Sarich and Miele, 2004; which I am sure that Smith knows due to the content of his book] of distinguishing between human groups on racial grounds is more deep-seated” than we have acknowledged because we are picking out real kinds that exist in nature.
Race, as a concept, is biologically real. Racial categories pick out real kinds in nature, as argued by Spencer (2014) and Hardimon (2017). Criticisms on Hardimon from Spencer or Spencer from Hardimon do not take away from this one fact: that race exists and is biologically real. Groups taken to be ‘racial’ look different from each other; they look different from each other due to their geographic locations and their ancestry (C1-C3). Since this is true, then race exists. We can argue this view simply:
P1. If groups of people look different from each other depending on where their ancestors evolved, then race exists.
P2. Groups of people look different from each other depending on where their ancestors evolved.
C. Therefore, race exists since people look different depending on where their ancestors evolved (modus ponens, P1, P2).
Biological racial realism is true.
In the past few weeks, talks of genetic modification have increased in the news cycle. Questions of whether or not to edit the genes of future people constantly arise. Should we edit genes and or the germline? If we edit the germline, what types of problems would occur? Is it moral to edit the germline of future people (babes are included in this as well) when they have no say? Is it moral to edit the genes of a baby that cannot consent to such editing? I will present one argument for and against editing the germline. This is a really big debate in current contemporary discourse; the argument for editing the germline rests on wanting the best for future people (which of course include our children) while the argument against editing the germline rests on the fact that said future people cannot consent to said germline editing so we should not edit the germline.
An argument for editing the germline
Germline editing is editing the germline in such a way that said edit is heritable—the modification to the germline is then acquired by the next generation of progeny. The rationale for editing the germline could be very simple:
Parents want what’s best for their children; since parents want what’s best for their children, then parents should edit their germline to rid their children of any disease and/or make them the best person they can possibly be, as is the job of all parents; therefore parents should edit the germline so said heritable changes can pass to the next generations since parents want what’s best for their children.
One may say that a babe has no choice in being born, naturally or artificially, and so since parents are able to choose the modifications, then this does consider the babe’s rights as a (future) person/human since it is, in theory, giving the babe the best possible chance at life with little, to no, diseases (that are noticed at conception). Parents can use new, up-and-coming genetic technology to attempt to give their child a head-start in life. They can edit their own germlines, and so, each change done to their germline would pass on to future progeny.
An argument against germline editing
Ethicist Walter Glannon articulates two great arguments against germline editing in his book Genes and Future People: Philosophical Issues in Human Genetics (2002). Glannon (2002: 89-90) writes:
Among other things, however, germ-line genetic alteration may not be desireable from an evolutionary perspective. Some genetic mutations are necessary for species to adapt to changing environmental conditions, and some genetic disorders involve alleles that confer a survival advantage on certain populations.
This raises the risk of whether or not we have a duty to prevent passing on altered genes with potentially harmful consequences to people who will exist in the distant future. It may recommend avoiding germ-line genetic manipulation altogether, which is supported by two related points. First, people existing in the future may be adversely affected by the consequences of a practice to which they did not consent. Second, because of the complex way in which genes interact, it would be difficult to weigh the probable health benefits of people in the present and near duture generations against the probable health burdens to people in the distant future. Because their interest in, and right to, not being harmed have just as much moral weight as those of the people who already exist or will exist in the near future, we would be well-advised to err on the side of caution. Indded, we would be morally obligated to do so, on the grounds of nonmaleficence. This would mean prohibiting germ-line genetic manipulation, or at least postponing it until further research can provide a more favorable assessment of its safety and efficacy.
I largely agree with Glannon here; though I will take his argument a step further: since future people literally cannot consent to germline genetic modificaitons then we should not edit our germline since we would be passing on the heritable changes to our descendants who did not ask for such changes.
The argument against germline editing is very simple:
(1) People should have a choice in whether or not their genes are modified.
(2) Since people should have a choice in whether or not their genes are modified, they then should be able to say “yes” or “no” to the modifications; though they cannot consent since they are not present to consent to the germline editing they will acquire in the future since they are not alive yet.
(3) Therefore we should not modify the germline without consent from future people, meaning that we should not edit the germline since there is a strong moral imperative to not do so since the future people in question cannot consent to the editing.
This argument against germline editing is a very strong moral argument: if one cannot consent to something, then that something should not be done. Future people cannot consent to germline editing. Therefore we should not edit the germline.
Another thing to think about is that if parents can edit the germline and genes of their children (future people), then it can be said that they would be more like “commodities”, like a handbag or whatnot, since they can make choices of what type of handbag they have, they would then make choices on what type of kid to have.
Hildt (2016) writes:
It is questionable whether there would be broader justifiable medical uses for germline interventions, especially in view of the availability of genetic testing and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
Gene editing can give us “designer babies” (though my argument presented above also is an argument against “designer babies” since they are future people, too); it can also put an end to many diseases that plague our society. However, there are many things we need to think about—both ethically/morally and empirically—before we even begin to think about editing our germline cells.
So, on the basis of (1) future people not being able to consent to said germline modifications and (2) us not knowing the future consequences of said germline editing, then we should not edit the germline. We, in fact, have a moral imperative to not do so since they cannot consent. The argument “for” germline editing, in my opinion, do not override the argument “against” germline editing. I am aware that most people would say “Who cares?” in regard to the arguments for or against germline modification, because people would “Just do it anyway.” Though, if there are laws against the editing of the germline, then germline editing cannot (should not) go through. Just because we *can* do something does not mean that we *should* do it.
We should not modify the germline because future people cannot consent to the changes. The moral argument provided here against germline editing is sound; the argument is a very strong moral one and since it is sound we should accept the argument’s conclusion that: “we should not modify the germline without consent from future people, meaning that we should not edit the germline since there is a strong moral imperative to not do so since the future people in question cannot consent to the editing.“
Like abortion, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is feared. This is due, in part, to fears of eugenics coming back through a “backdoor” with the advent of new technology such as CRISPR/CAS9 and other types of tools we can use to genetically modify ourselves. The case of PGD—just like abortion—has been heavily debated in recent times, more so due to the recent strides in genomics we have made since the advent of the Human Genome Project.
PGD offers us a method to identify embryos with genetic diseases. Understandably, this has raised caution with some, due to the strong link with eugenic thinking/policies. See The Ethical Implications of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis. Thus, by scanning the genomes of fetuses, we can then see if they have a higher chance of acquiring any disease and select fetuses which have a lower to nonexistent chance of acquiring said disease.
An argument against PGD
In his paper Just diagnosis? Preimplantation genetic diagnosis and injustices to disabled people, Peterson (2005) presents one slippery slope argument against PGD (Freeman, 1996) (and later provides a refutation). The argument that Peterson (2005) presents is a “slippery slope” argument—that is, it’s an argument which argues that if we allow X, then since we allowed X, then horrible thing Y can and will follow. Peterson (2005) articulates the argument thus:
As situation A (the use of PGD to select against severe genetic diseases) is refined, “it will be difficult, if not impossible, to contain the uses of such research”. A will therefore bring about situation B, where PGD will be used to select against mild or perhaps non-medical conditions.
Besides the refinement of A, B will be brought about because “There will likely be an increasing pressure … on people to take advantage of these techniques, and not bring even a mildly disabled child into the world …”.
Finally, we could reach a morally abhorrent outcome Z, which is disturbingly close to eugenics, where our notion of the moral equality of all human beings, including those with disabilities, is undermined.
Z is so morally bad, that it outweighs the benefits of undertaking A.
Therefore, A should not be undertaken.
This argument, in my view, seems to be appealing to emotion by saying that since we can reach morally abhorrent outcome Z (a type of eugenics), then we should not continue with this practice. However, others argue that this discriminates against people with disabilities (see Katthab, 2009). Peterson (2005) argues that Freeman’s (1996) argument “lacks empirical support” and so it makes the conclusion difficult to assess; technology can and will be regulated which would quell any fears of possible use of this technology for any eugenic ideals; and, through using PGD, we can use it to “fight the obvious causes of discrimination, such as intolerance and egoism“, which would, in turn, reduce discrimination. Lastly, addressing Freeman’s (1996) concerns that PGD would lead to the discrimination of currently disabled persons, Peterson (2005) claims that “even if we accept that PGD will generate discrimination against disabled people, it is far from obvious that this is sufficient to warrant its moral condemnation.” Thus, Peterson (2005) concludes that Freeman’s (1996) argument is not sufficient to end the use of PGD technology. (Also see Robertson, 2003 for the view that “except for sex selection of the first child, most current extensions of PGD are ethically acceptable“.)
Many arguments against PGD rely on the concept of a fetus as a person and terminating any fetus with any prospective disease is paramount to killing a person. Others, of course, hinge on the fact that PGD does help reduce the risk of a babe being born with deleterious diseases, it does not completely ameliorate any generic risk for disease and so the fetus must be monitored through conception up until pregnancy to be sure that no disease appears during conception. And, of course, certain diseases that may hamper one’s quality of life may not appear until one reaches adolescence, adulthood, middle or old age. This is another fact against PGD: that even selecting embryos that apparently have no risk for disease, they may acquire diseases in older age which would not be seen since some diseases only generate symptoms at certain stages of life.
One final objection to PGD is also moral: it could, and will, send a message to any individuals currently alive that their lives are somehow “less” than others, since individuals with a chance to acquire said disease are selected against, as McConachy (2010) argues.
Lastly, Richardson (2017: 155-157) argues that the selection of embryos with so-called “potential” is ill-founded since they talk about vague concepts such as “egg quality”. Differences in potential lie, supposedly, in the “genetic blueprint” (see my article DNA Is not a Blueprint for arguments against that notion), though “That view implies that differences in individuals in important functions are largely due to differences in genes. As we have seen, though, things are far from being so simple” (Richardson, 2017: 156).
An argument for PGD
PGD can be used for many things; most importantly, screening the genome of a perspective fetus before IVF. Though, this has led some to worry that this could be a way in which eugenics can “sneak in through the backdoor” by virtue of making people with diseases more likely to be discriminated against since “disabled phenotypes” would slowly be phased out by PGD. One argument for could be:
Parents have rights; if parents have rights, then they have the right to do what they want with their children, and they want to do what is best for their children; therefore a parent should have the right to use PGD to select the best-possible embryo for implantation.
This is where we think of the implications of aborting a fetus, or not implanting a fetus that has a higher chance of acquiring any disease. There are, of course, certain people who would willingly select embryos which have a high chance to be disabled, because they themselves are disabled or they believe they “should be” disabled themselves and so want disabled children. Since parents have rights, as can be seen in the reasoning chain above, then parents should be able to choose the status of their babe. But if the babe’s quality of life is low, then is it ethical for that person to select an embryo with a high chance of acquiring a disease?
Another argument “for” PGD can be:
Humans should not suffer; if we can prevent human suffering with our current technology, then we have a moral imperative to do whatever is in our power to do so; if we can prevent low qualities of life for any embryo E, then we should do so; therefore, we should screen embryos for diseases that can and will lower their qualities of life and select against these embryos.
One may argue that a fetus may not have a “moral right” to life (see Tooley, 1972), though, if we know that a fetus has a high chance to have such a debilitating disease such that it lowers its quality of life, then it should be aborted/not implanted in the womb. Religious views, of course, come into play here but I am not worried about them; I am worried only about sound arguments for them. (See Fasoulioutis and Schenker, 1997 for these views.)
PGD may, of course, prevent abortions of said fetus since we know that the fetus in question may have a higher chance of acquiring a certain disease, so if one is against abortion, then they may be for the use of PGD to screen the fetuses’ genome to scan for any readily apparent problems in their genome in regard to the acquiring of certain genetic diseases.
Arguments for PGD hinge on parents wanting the best possible lives for the children they conceive and the arguments really rely on parental autonomy, the parent’s want to choose how their kid is born, if their chance for disease is high or not (which also would turn to “designer babies”; an argument against “designer babies” will be erected soon. If parents can do what’s best for an unborn child then, most would argue they have a moral imperative to give the babe the best possible life and so they should abort/select against certain embryos which have a high chance of acquiring diseases.
There do not seem to be as many strong arguments against PGD compared to abortion. Though one can use the basic blueprint of the argument against abortion and liken it to PGD. The PGD debate is similar to the abortion debate. One can use similar arguments against abortion to argue against PGD.
These debates are both ethical scientific: we have the ability to now do X which would stop suffering Y in embryo E. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should do so? Like with the editing of the germline, we don’t know what types of consequences would occur since we have, pretty much, no experience in editing the germline/genes of humans in a large-scale way.
Abortion is a touchy subject for many people. There are many different arguments for and against abortion, including, but not limited to, the woman’s right to do what she wants with her body on the pro-abortion side, to the right of a fetus to live a good life if there is little chance of the fetus developing a serious disease. In this article, I will provide two arguments: one for and one against abortion. The abortion debate is an ethical, not scientific, one, and so, we must use argumentation to see the best way to move forward in this debate.
An argument for abortion
Michael Tooley, in his paper Abortion and Infanticide, provides an argument not only for the abortion of fetuses, but the killing of infants and animals since they cannot conceive of continuing their selves. He argues that an organism only has a right o life of they can conceive of that right to life. His conclusion is that it should be morally permissible to end a baby’s life shortly after birth since it cannot conceive of wanting to live. The conclusion of the argument also includes—quite controversially, in fact—young infants and (nonhuman) animals. Ben Saunders articulates Tooley’s argument in Just the Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Arguments in Western Philosophy (2011: 284-286):
P1. If A has a morally serious right to X, then A must be able to want X.
P2. If A is able to want X, then A must be able to conceive if X.
C1. If A has a morally serious right to X, then A must be able to conceive of X (hypothetical syllogism, P1, P2).
P3. Fetuses, young infants, and animals cannot conceive of their continuing as subjects of mental states.
C2. Fetuses, young infants, and animals cannot want their continuance as subjects of mental states (modus tollens, P2, P3).
C3. Fetuses, young infants, and animals do not have morally serious rights to continue as subjects of mental states (modus tollens, P1, C2).
P4. If something does not have a morally serious right to life, then it is not morally wrong to kill it painlessly.
C4. It is not wrong to kill fetuses, young infants, or animals painlessly (modus ponens, C3, P4).
Of course, most people would seriously disagree with C4, since a babe’s life is one of the most precious things in the world— the protection of said babes is how we continue our species. However, the argument is deductively valid, and so one must show which premise is wrong and why. This argument—along with the one that will be presented below against abortion (of healthy fetuses)—is very strong. Thus, if a woman so pleases (along with her autonomy), she can choose to abort her fetus since it is not wrong to kill a fetus painlessly. (I am not aware if fetuses can feel pain or not, however. If they can, then the conclusion of this argument does not hold.)
Tooley’s argument regarding the killing of infants is similar to an argument made by Gibiulini and Minerva (2013) who argue that since fetuses and newborns don’t have the same moral status as actual persons, fetuses and infants can eventually become persons, and since adoption is not always in the best interests 9f people, then “‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled” (Giubilini and Minerva, 2013).
An argument against abortion
One strong argument against abortion exists: Marquis’ (1989) argument in his paper Why Abortion Is Immoral. Women may want an abortion for many reasons: such as not wanting to carry a babe to term, to finding out that the babe has a serious genetic disorder. Though, what matters to this argument is not the latter, but the former: the mother wanting an abortion of a healthy fetus. Marquis’ argument is simple: killing is wrong; killing is wrong since killing ends one’s life, and ending one’s life means they won’t experience anything anymore, they won’t be happy anymore, they won’t be able to accomplish things, and this is one of the greatest losses that can be suffered; abortions of a healthy fetus cause the loss of experiences, activities, and enjoyment to the fetus; thus, the abortion of a healthy fetus is not only ethically wrong, but seriously wrong. Marquis’ (1989) argument is put succinctly by Leslie Burkholder in the book Just the Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Arguments in Western Philosophy (2011: 282-283):
P1. Killing this particular adult human being or child would be seriously wrong.
P2. What makes it so wrong is that it causes the loss of this individual’s future experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments, and this loss is one of the greatest losses that can be suffered.
C1. Killing this adult human being or child would be seriously wrong, and what makes it so wrong is that it causes the loss of this individual’s future experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments, and this loss is one of the greatest losses that can be suffered (conjunction, P1, P2).
P3. If killing this particular adult human being or child would be seriously wrong and what makes it so wrong is that it causes the loss of all this individual’s experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments, and this loss is one of the greatest losses that can be suffered, then anything that causes to any individual the loss of all future experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments is seriously wrong.
C2. Anything that causes to any individual the loss of all future experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments is seriously wrong (modus ponens, C1, P3).
P4. All aborting of any healthy fetus would cause the loss to that individual of all its future experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments.
C3. If A causes to individual F the loss of all future experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments, then A is seriously wrong (particular instantiation, C2).
C4. If A is an abortion of healthy fetus F, then A causes to individual F the loss of all future experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments (particular instantiation, P4).
C5. If A is an abortion of a healthy fetus F, then A is seriously wrong (hypothetical syllogism, C3, C4).
C6. All aborting of any healthy fetus is seriously wrong (universal generalization, C5).
In this case, the argument is about abortion in regard to healthy fetuses. This argument, like the one for abortion, is also deductively valid. (Arguments for and against the abortion of unhealthy fetuses will be covered in the future.) Thus, if a fetus is healthy then it should not be aborted since doing so would cause the individual to lose their future experiences, enjoyments, activities, and projects. Thus, the abortion of a healthy fetus is seriously and morally wrong. This argument clearly establishes the fetuses’ right to life if it is healthy.
Both of these arguments for and against abortion are strong; on the “for” side, we have the apparent facts that fetuses, infants, and (nonhuman) animals cannot want their continuance of their mental states since they cannot conceive of their continuance and want of mental states, so if they cannot want their continuance of their mental states they do not have a morally serious right to life and it is, therefore, morally right to kill them painlessly. On the “against” side, we have the facts that aborting healthy fetuses will cause the loss of all future experiences, enjoyments, activities, and projects, and so, the abortion of these healthy fetuses is both seriously and morally wrong.
I will cover these types of arguments—and more—in the future. However, if one is against genetic modification, embryo selection, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and ‘eugenics’, then one must, logically, be against the abortion of healthy fetuses as well. These two arguments, of course, have implications for any looming eugenic policies as well, which I will cover in the future.
(I, personally, lean toward the “against” side in this debate; though, of course, the argument presented in this article on the “for” side is strong as well.)