The Specter of Eugenics

From time to time here there has been some discussion of eugenics here.    Since “eugenics” is (or at least can be) something of an incendiary term, I thought it might be worth thinking about it a bit.   I also came across this abstract for an article that looks like it would be worth reading (though I have not had time to read it yet.)   

I’ll start with a note about the word itself.   While I’m reluctant to invoke Wikipedia as an authority, this seems like a useful time to check there.   Its entry under “eugenics” notes that the word can be used to mean many things.  That’s in contrast to the dictionary definition:

“selective breeding as proposed human improvement: the proposed improvement of the human species by encouraging or permitting reproduction of only those people with genetic characteristics judged desirable”

I suppose the point here for me is that the dictionary definition is rather narrow and specific, but as the Wikipedia article makes clear, the word has been employed in much broader ways. 

In any event, if I take eugenics to mean some general set of topics about genetically engineering the next generation (and I want to be purposely vague here) it’s easy to why it comes up as soon as you start to think about using third-party gametes.   When third party gametes are used, the people using them make a choice about which gametes to use.   After all, it’s very hard to imagine someone electing to use randomly chosen sperm/eggs.  

Further, as ART has developed into a vast global industry, the range of choices is far broader than it once was.  From the comfort of your own living room you can shop on-line for the genetic material of your choice.   

In fact, there’s selection that occurs even before this consumer stage.  Those who collect and sell gametes won’t take everyone’s.   They’ll screen out people with clear histories of heritable illnesses.   

Of course, the ability to make choices about the genetic material to use isn’t limited to ART, either.   I wrote recently about more sophisticated genetic screening that is now available.   It’s used in screening gametes provided for ART but it can, as that post used, also be used couples contemplating unassisted reproduction or even by matchmakers who are involved in creating the couples who might reproduce.  Couldn’t this, too, be read as a form of genetic engineering?    Even the concern that has been expressed here from time to time about the risk of accidental incest (where two people who do not realize they are (genetically speaking) close together might reproduce)  seems premised on the notion that some people (close genetic relatives) should not reproduce together.     

All of which is to say that the mere fact that people at various levels are making choices about what genetic material to use in ART doesn’t strike me as necessarily problematic.    It seems to me there are at least two different things to think about when you try to figure out is a choice is okay. 

First, who is making the choice?  That Hastings Center article appears to develop this point.   (Really, I do mean to go read it.  I’m just organizing my thoughts in advance of reading it.)   It’s one thing for the state or some other authority to make decisions like this.  That’s surely part of the legacy of eugenics from WWII.   I’d think about it differently if the choice was made by individuals.   (I don’t mean to say I’d automatically conclude that anything individuals do is okay, by the way.   I only what I said–that I would think about it differently.) 

Second, what is the nature of the choice being made?   One common choice couples make when using third-party gametes is to choose gametes from someone who looks like the member of the couple who won’t be genetically related to the child.   That might mean matching race/ethnicity, but it can mean more than that–matching eye color, hair color, body type, etc.   While this might come under a broad understanding of eugenics, it doesn’t trouble me that much.   Indeed, I don’t see any alternative if you’re going to let people use third-party gametes.  Really–no one is just going to want to take a randomly selected gamete.

I might distinguish this practice (which in some way you can say is about esthetic choices) from screening for genetic defects.    On some level, this kind of screening might seem even less problematic–if you know that a child conceived with particular gametes has a high risk of some fatal genetic defect, is it wrong to elect not to use those gametes?  (Notice that this decision can be made outside of the ART setting–someone who knows she/he is a carrier of a disease might elect not to reproduce.)  But this also might be where you encounter a slippery slope–where do you draw the line and say that it is no longer okay to select for or against particular genetic traits. 

There’s no conclusion here for me beyond saying that there’s a lot to think about/talk about here.   For better or worse, we now have many tools that allow us to make choices about what genes get used.    Not using them is impossible–it’s all about using them wisely (whatever that means).


4 responses to “The Specter of Eugenics

  1. ” Even the concern that has been expressed here from time to time about the risk of accidental incest (where two people who do not realize they are (genetically speaking) close together might reproduce) seems premised on the notion that some people (close genetic relatives) should not reproduce together. ”


    • But it’s not just a eugenic concern that two closely related people might produce unhealthy offspring, it’s also just a social custom and a concern that the family will suffer social problems and psychological issues if they discover they share a parent.
      And is this point really what I think it is? That, since we are concerned about preventing accidental incest, that proves that we are eugenicists ourselves, and therefore, eugenically choosing sperm and egg donors is no different from avoiding incest?

      • I do not mean to suggest that all forms of eugenics are equal. I don’t think they are. For starters, I do think there is a qualitative difference between eugenics decreed by a central authority and the sort of eugenics that might occur on the level of individual choice. (This doesn’t mean I think the latter is always okay, just that I think it is meaningfully different.) Beyond that, I find some choices that might be called “eugenics” acceptable (as when people using IVF select the embryo with the greatest chance of resulting in a successful pregnancy) while others are unacceptable to me.

        And what all of that demonstrates (to me) is that it isn’t enough to call something “eugenics.” Indeed, I’m not even clear that it is helpful to call it “eugenics.’ Instead, it is necessary to think about the specifics of whatever is being discussed. Thus, I reject the logic of the last conclusion in your comment. The fact that two things may both be identified as forms of eugenics doesn’t lead to any conclusion about whether we should treat them similarly.

  2. Out of a genuine desire to learn – Is it eugenics to be attracted to a particular person and not attracted to a particular different person? Say you would want to make a baby with a person with these particular traits but not those? Presumably the person wants to make a baby with you as well but is that really Eugenics? Or is it when you are attracted to someone and then find out they have a heart defect and then decide not to have kids with them, is that Eugenics?

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