The topic of eugenics, or ‘people husbandry’ as it has been called, is one which receives far less attention than it would have were it not for the nefarious influence of one A. Hitler and his ragtag band of genocidal maniacs some seventy years ago. The fact that the Nazis believed that they could create, from their own stock of course, a ‘master race’, and that they carried out many horrible experiments to that end, has inevitably made discussion of the concept sensitive, if not taboo, in many circles.
The fact remains, however, that prior to World War Two, and all the horrors which went along with it, eugenics was a highly popular idea, and was supported by many eminent scientists and thninkers of note, both in Europe and beyond. The modern ability to be aware of genetic disorders prior to birth, to manipulate genes in ways previously unthinkable, as well as the success of the Human Genome Project, means that the idea is due to come back to us in a big way, and no amount of social nicety will divert the power of science in this regard.
I would like to think about the issue in a way which ignores the negative connotations of the past, and focus on an examination of the rights and wrongs of various aspects of the practice. To be clear, eugenics is ‘the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics)’. I have borrowed this definition from dictionary.com.
To take the first aspect first, I think it is fairly clear to a Western sensibility, that forcing someone to have children with another, simply because it is believed that the resulting children will be genetically desirable, is not something we would consider morally right. Eastern philosophy, if you will, is more amenable to the idea of arranged (and sometimes forced) marriage, with all the inherent benefits which result (i.e. children). However, marriage and children are not interchangeable, and I think, for myself, I would take the position that forcing two people to have children with each other is not a practice which a just society would foster. Again, cultural considerations may cause differences of opinion on this regard.
The second aspect, discouraging, or prohibiting reproduction amongst certain individuals, is a murkier area. While many would take the view that people have a right to have children, I do not believe that this is the case, and I believe there is some value to the argument that people should be fit and able to provide for their children, before being permitted to bring them into the world. But this is far from saying potential parents should be genetically screened before being permitted to conceive. Eugenics goes even further than this, or it can, in the sense that it would prevent people with certain genetic defects (Down’s syndrome, Turner’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy and so on) from having children, thereby eventually eliminating these problems from the gene pool , and hence the population. Some of these defects are self-limiting, in the sense that those who have them cannot reproduce, and others are not. So, is it fair to prevent people with these defects from having children?
Any consideration of the question must necessarily involve a balance of the rights of the individual against the rights of the state (i.e. everyone else). To simply, let us assume the embryo growing inside a particular woman has been found to have Turner’s syndrome. Assuming it is early enough to abort, and assuming also that the woman herself wants to keep the child, then the child must be kept, because if I can say nothing else for certain, I can say that forced abortion is something I could never countenance. However, taking a step back from this, we must consider the ‘right’ of the parents to conceive a child in the first place. If genetic disorders could be eliminated, by preventing people who had them from, essentially, having sex, would this be a desirable option?
For myself, I am unsure. While I don’t believe people have the right to children, I think denying people children on the basis of their genes is a slippery slope. Should a woman married to someone with depression be prevented from having a child? What about a woman with a murderer for a husband (issues of conjugal visits aside)? The argument is moot for the moment, but should there come a time when we are able, through technology, to tell the likelihood that a particular couple will conceive a child which will suffer from cystic fibrosis, or phenylketonuria, or the desire to touch children; I say, should there come a time when we are able to tell this to a high degree of certainty for any given couple in the population at any time, then the question will have to be answered: do we allow such children life, or do we improve life for everyone else by denying them a chance at their own?
As I have said, it is hard to come to a satisfactory conclusion in this regard. It is hard to dispute that the human race would be measurably improved by the elimination of certain genes, certain characteristics, but as I mentioned, this is a tricky idea, in the sense of knowing where to stop. Do we soon weed out intolerance, or a melancholic disposition, known to be an attribute when settled in an artistic mind; do we remove dissatisfaction, and the inclination to protest? Manipulation of the gene pool could be a powerful tool in the hands of a technologically advanced fascistic regime. I guess this brings us back to the Nazis again. The ultimate question would be: who decides what is desirable, and what is not? Since we cannot agree on this at present, I find it hard to believe that we will ever have consensus on this in future. And if we are to embark upon a programme which would change the essence of who we are, before we begin, we’d better be damn sure we know who it is we want to become.