I’ve written about eugenics in the past and it has been on my mind recently. First, there was this article about North Carolina’s ongoing efforts to come to terms with one of the darker chapters of its past. This is just one specific instance of a tragic legacy of eugenics that ought to give us pause as we look towards the future.
Then this morning I picked up the New York Times to find this piece on the possibility of a genetic basis for crime. Now there is no doubt that we understand more about genetics and inheritance than we used to, but as the NYT story makes clear, there’s still a great deal we don’t understand. And those who research in the field are mindful of the history of eugenics. Indeed, one of the points made in the story is that concerns about eugenics has stalled research in the field for years.
While that’s understandable, it seems to me that our growing understanding of DNA and our current popular fascination with the subject makes this sort of research, and then the popularization of the research inevitable. For me the question is not should the research be done–because I am convinced it will be done–but rather what will we do with that research?
We live in an age where many people believe in genetic predispositions for lots of behaviors (and there is at least some science to support these beliefs.) If we believe that and if we can identify the genes, then what comes next?
I think of a series of hypotheticals. (Sorry–I am a law professor I know.) Let’s suppose married husband and wife are doing IVF using their own gametes. Four pre-embryos are created and the doctors will transfer one to the wife’s womb.
In the first iteration, the doctors want to check the genetic makeup of each of the four candidates and select the one that is most likely to thrive and lead to a full-term pregnancy and birth. I don’t have any moral objection to this–indeed, it seems to me sound. (I do understand that others will have already parted company from me, but let’s go on just to think further.)
In the second iteration, the doctors can identify some severe genetic defects in some of the pre-embryos. While the embryos could likely be transferred with a successful pregnancy would probably result, the child would have serious impairments of one sort or another. (There’s a host of possibilities here: What if it were a heart impairment that would severely restrict the activities of the child, but could be repaired through expensive surgery? What if it were a painful neurological impairment? A cognitive impairment?) Is it eugenics to choose one of the embryos that does not show any genetic impairment? I’m afraid it’s getting close to the line here.
And a third iteration–inspired by the NYT story. If you knew that because of genetic makeup one of the pre-embryos would develop into a child who was somewhat more likely to engage in criminal behavior, could you opt not to use that one?
Sometime back I wrote about the word “eugenics” and the weight it carries. I do wonder if the word is in the way here. Calling something “eugenics” is condemns it–no one advocates eugenics. But the dilemmas above–or dilemmas very much like them–are ones we have to face as we increase our understanding of DNA.
There’s one other point to note here. During the last few days, in the comments of some of the recent posts I’ve been engaged in a discussion of the ways in which DNA matters to people–and it does matter to many people in many ways. Understanding your genetic heritage seems to be part of some people’s quest for identity and self-understanding.
It seems to me that this belief must rest on some assertion that DNA is essential and defining. That’s a foundation that also supports assertions that, for better or for worse, much of our conduct is genetically determined, which in turn leads to the eugenics questions.
To be clear, Ido not mean to suggest that those who assert the importance of DNA and genetic forebears are supportive of eugenics. That is not at all where I am heading. But I do think that there are some shared foundational beliefs about the importance of DNA that are worthy of some thought.