Understanding DNA and the Specter of Eugenics

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.      



4 responses to “Understanding DNA and the Specter of Eugenics

  1. I part company with you long before Julie, as I believe in the effect of the environment and of personal choice.

    • We may very well part company, but it wouldn’t be at that fork in the road. I, too, believe in the effect of environment and personal choice. It’s not the hand you are dealt–it’s who teaches you how to play the hand and then how you choose to play it.

      I hope nothing here gives the impression that I don’t believe in the importance of environment and personal choice.

  2. This is a very thought provoking post. I like the analogies. Well, I guess abortion is the least complex form of eugenics because your selecting which pregnancies to develop based upon preferences regarding timing in the mother’s life status of relationship etc. She may not have a strong relationship with the male that got her pregnant and she chooses not to grow that guys child into a baby making them both parents at birth. I’m very much pro choice or at least I think I am. But I’m recalling a Nazi poster of a mentally handicapped person and the postor was suggesting killing the man because he was a financial burden on the state. Is that not the crux of Eugenics? Life vs. Death? In the case of abortion I think its officially registered as a fetal death under the name of the female who has the abortion. But its not registered like a person who lived and died. But so there is that least complex form of Eugenics where the host female can opt not to develop her fetus into a baby turning it into their child.

    I am a little freaked out by the idea that we can do all this selective picking and choosing and had not even pondered it before really. I can see where we are just going to make our selves extinct with all this tampering. You and I wont be here to see it but I think once the human race has figured out how to fix everything we’ll have corrected the tragedies that somehow kept the species going or maybe we will just work the formula out to its simplest form and poof. game over. tv off.

    So I think maybe your looking at genetics as some sort of novelty that we might just overdose on. If we are using it to eliminate life rather than to make the best of it take what we learn from one persons life and then apply it to the life of another related person so that they might not have to endure something experienced by the first person then I think genetics is fantastic. If you have two unrelated children you still apply the experience raising one to the activity of raising the next, if you did not you failed to learn anything meaningful from that experience. If your raising two related children then the lessons with regard to health and behavior are amplified and in fact could have life threatening/saving implications for not just the sibling but all their other relatives. To deliberately cut your child off from that kind of relevant information and to prevent your child from being a source of information to his other relatives is selfish and short sighted if the option could have existed to have clear open communication with the child’s parent and parents relatives. My fear with sperm and egg donation is that there are all these people raising kids as if they are only children when they are not. They are pertinent to one another and to other members of their absent parent’s family. Its another part of blindly tampering for the benefit of the people raising the child where as applying genetic information to make better decisions is a good thing., killing people off for displaying those traits is a pretty scary idea.

    • I think a lot of the selection stuff isscary, but I think we’re going to have to deal with it. I know some will say shut down all IVF, but that won’t happen. And once you have IVF some of the things are quite reasonable–like picking to transfer the most viable pre-embryo. And then there you go, down the path that leads to much more difficult choices.

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