These days eugenics is a dirty word – instant condemnation awaits any politician who even flirts with the idea. Indeed, we prefer to forget just how many eminent figures of the 20th Century were ardent eugenicists – deluding ourselves that it was only the Nazis who believed in human breeding programmes.
In a brilliant article for the Spectator, Mary Wakefield reminds us that eugenics has never really gone away – and that scientific progress means that the issue is becoming more not less relevant:
“…the screening of embryos is becoming ever easier. Preimplantation genetic screening, it’s called, or PGS: you fertilise a clutch of eggs, then carefully extract a single cell from each to see which genes what’s got. So there’s a scientific pincer moment going on. The more genes we ‘discover’ and the cheaper PGS becomes, the closer we come to that sci-fi day when parents can shop for their fantasy tot. Your grandchildren may be able to browse for genetic traits in their kids the way you choose shoes — and for me that’s where the trouble begins…”
Though our society has lost its religious faith in the sanctity of unborn human life, Wakefield pleads for a secular version of it:
“Maybe it’s no worse to snuff out an embryo than to squash a pea under a fork — but… don’t you feel in your bones that there should at least be some serious reason to make and break life — or it’s as if we’ve forgotten we were all embryos once.
“My half-baked position, thought through mostly in waiting rooms, is that it’s a better fit with our instincts to assume that embryos do have some moral status, even if just a shadow of one; enough so we can accept it’s at least a sadness to snuff ’em out…”
However, if such an instinct does still flicker within the modern mind – then it lies crushed beneath the everyday practice of abortion. When we accept the destruction of human foetal life on an industrial scale, then it seems unlikely that any lingering sense of squeamishness can prevent the eugenic selection of embryos.
The only real barriers are those of scientific know-how and economic affordability – and once those are surmounted, what’s to stop us from exploiting the possibilities?
“Just this month scientists at King’s College have found that teenagers who had a highly functioning NPTN gene performed better in intelligence tests. This particular gene only accounts for a mere 0.5 per cent of the variance in IQ, but even so — think how far some parents will go to give their kid the slightest edge. There’s a team including the Chinese company BGI and the superstar geneticist Robert Plomin busy searching for the hundreds or thousands of genes responsible for IQ. They think they will succeed within a decade, and do you really think the Chinese will have scruples about designing a master race?”
While our culture may not give two hoots for the humanity of an unwanted embryo, we can’t deny that widespread embryonic (or foetal) selection would alter society once the children that did make the grade were born and grew to adulthood. Could we really tolerate the impact that this would have on the composition of our population?
“What about screening just for gender? Most doctors will refuse to abort a foetus because you want a different sex, but is it OK for embryos?
“…and what about homosexuality? Just as we reach the rainbow-lit uplands above prejudice, so we have to deal with this year’s exciting fact that gay men often share a similar genetic make-up. What, oh pragmatists, will you do if couples start screening for ‘gay’ genes and discarding embryos which carry them?”
Bit of a liberal dilemma, that one – but in our society it can only be resolved one way:
Firstly, we already use genetic testing and selective abortion to reduce the number of babies born with disabilities – if disabled foetuses don’t have human rights then neither do those with other unwanted characteristics. Secondly, the principle of a ‘woman’s right to choose’ is becoming more not less entrenched – and, surely, a woman’s control over her body includes control over which of her genes she passes on to the children she gives birth to. Of course, if the relevant genetic tests weren’t available then it would be impossible to act upon the results – however, the suppression of scientific knowledge for the greater good is something that liberal societies are generally unwilling and unable to do.
So, eugenics it is then.