Genetic Screening for Ethical Babies

In the most recent issue of the British Reader’s Digest, Professor Julian Savulescu argues that parents may have a moral obligation to genetically engineer babies with more ethical traits. With the advances in medical technology and genetic screening, Savulescu believes that couples can use genetic mapping of embryos in combination with in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to ensure that their children do not exhibit traits that may be harmful to themselves and others.

While rejecting the coercive tactics of previous eugenics practices, Savulescu states:

Modern eugenics, from testing for diseases to deciding whether you want a girl or boy, is voluntary. So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.

Notice his language here. He believes that squeamishness and irrationality (admittedly traits found in many humans for the entire history of mankind) are a “ball and chain” on society. Such undesirable traits apparently prevent progress for the human race.

However, Savulescu does not stop at the idea of progress. He continues his “moral” argument with the idea of obligation. He writes:

Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and dispositions to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children. They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others.

This moral case for genetic engineering comes on the heels of an announcement about the first whole-genome sequencing of a fetus. Savulescu believes that in the next five years, we will “be able to screen for every gene that determines who we are physically and psychologically.”

What should we make of this call for genetic engineering to produce “ethical” babies? First, we need to evaluate Savulescu’s worldview. It is clear from his brief article that he holds to a naturalistic worldview. He believes that the material world is the only reality. He has no room for God or the supernatural in his view. He even subtly mocks the idea of God when he states, “Some people believe that babies are a gift, of God or nature, and that we shouldn’t mess with their genetic make-up. But most of us already implicitly reject this view.”

Within his worldview, progress seems to be the ultimate goal. He never really defines progress apart from an ethic of non-malevolence. As long as people are not harming themselves or others, Savulescu seems to be satisfied.

Another commitment that seems evident in this proposal for genetic engineering is the idea of genetic determinism. This is the concept that man is simply a collection of genetic material. His personality, intelligence, relationships, etc., are determined completely by his genetic makeup. If this genetic makeup could be altered or enhanced, then we could generate a race of superior individuals. Even though Savulescu would not go so far as to say that we are required to take part in this genetic manipulation, he does believe we have a moral obligation to do so.

Francis Schaeffer noted similar trends in the thinking of Francis Crick (famed for discovering the DNA code with James Watson) forty years ago. Schaeffer writes:

Philosophically, therefore, Francis Crick is a reductionist—that is, one who would reduce man from a complex personal being made in the image of God to an electro-chemical machine. Unfortunately, such a notion not only makes man meaningless but soon leads to the idea that man can, and just as well may, be manipulated with impunity.

This very manipulation is what Savulescu desires to see. But more than that, he believes it is the morally right thing to do as parents. He states:

Screening embryos like this is illegal at present, but isn’t rational design something we should welcome? If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring—rather than consigning them to the natural lottery—then we should. Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?

While Savulescu objects to the forced sterilization and extermination of the “genetically unfit” from the days of Nazi eugenics programs, he still leaves the door open to some authority declaring that such a “moral obligation” should be enforced. He proclaims, “Whether we like it or not, the future of humanity is in our hands now. Rather than fearing genetics, we should embrace it. We can do better than chance.”

We need to recognize with Schaeffer that man is a complex personal being made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). We are more than DNA and chemical bonds. We have souls. And despite Savulescu’s praise for technology, genetic engineering cannot undo the effects of the fall (Gen 3). We are sinners. We often act in opposition to our own rational thought. We seek after our own desires—many times to the detriment of others and ourselves. Genetic screening will not solve this problem. Only Christ conquers sin.

_________________________

Julian Savulescu, “The Maverick: ‘It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies,’” Reader’s Digest (British edition), August 21, 2012.

Richard Alleyne, “Genetically engineering ‘ethical’ babies is a moral obligation, says Oxford professor,” The Telegraph, August 16, 2012.

Francis A. Schaeffer, Back to Freedom and Dignity, in vol. 1 of The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer (Wheaton: Crossway, 1985).

*Image credit: Ben Birchall/PA, The Telegraph

The Ugly American History of Eugenics

Most Americans live with the belief that we are the greatest society in the world. Our roots stem from proclamations “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We confidently assert that we always take the moral high ground on the world stage. We swell with pride over the idea that the American Dream is for everyone.

However, deep down we know that there is an ugly side to American history. We are not a perfect people, and we have made egregious errors in our brief history as a nation. Many of those errors have been swept under the rug of American pride, but this week the rug was pulled up to expose a terrible reality from the not-too-distant past.

A task force in North Carolina recommended on Tuesday that the state should pay $50,000 to each living sterilization victim of the state’s eugenics program. Eugenics? Forced sterilization? This has the ring of Nazi Germany, not the United States. Unfortunately, it is true.

For those unfamiliar with the term, what exactly is eugenics? Grenz and Smith define it this way:

A movement that encourages the study of heredity or the transference of genetically based traits from one generation of living beings to the next, generally with the goal of improving the hereditary endowment of humankind.

Eugenics generally has two sides—positive and negative. Positive eugenics encourages (or even rewards) healthy, intelligent individuals to reproduce. The idea is that they improve the human gene pool by passing along their desirable traits. Negative eugenics discourages reproduction by those exhibiting inferior traits. While this may seem to be a noble idea on the surface, it played out in ugly ways in American history.

Paul Lombardo describes the ugly side as follows:

In the 20th century, application of eugenical theory as a solution to social problems in America led to such ethically problematic practices as wide-scale sexual sterilization of epileptics, the mentally ill, and the retarded, restrictions on the immigration of some ethnic groups, and prohibition of marriages between people of differing racial backgrounds.

That brings us back to North Carolina. Between 1929 and 1974, the NC Eugenics Board authorized the sterilization of 7,600 people. The Charlotte Observer reports:

Some cases approved by the Eugenics Board were people who were mentally ill and sexually aggressive, and families who wanted to stop having children. But the board also authorized sterilizing people who were poor, or part of large families, or whose parents worried that men might take advantage of them. Some victims were as young as 10.

North Carolina is the first state to propose reparations for the victims. It is by no means the only state that implemented such horrendous practices. Some reports estimate that 33 different states had eugenics laws that allowed for forced sterilization and that more than 60,000 American were sterilized in the process.

How did our country get to this point? From an ethical standpoint, it involved the use of a consequentialist ethic. Consequentialism is the idea that ethical decisions are made based on projected outcomes. There are several different theories that implement this process, but the basic idea is that the ends justify the means. In the case of eugenics, the desired end was a society full of healthy, productive, intelligent people. The logic of consequentialism said that any means necessary to produce that desired result is acceptable. This included forcibly prohibiting those deemed “unacceptable” from reproducing.

From a scientific angle, the impetus for eugenics came from the fledgling field of genetics. While the exact nature of genetic study was still a long way off, animal breeders had long known that breeding “superior” animals together generally resulted in better offspring. The process of selective breeding in animals was transferred to humans in the eugenics movement of the late-19th and 20th centuries.

From a political perspective, the value of the society over the individual spurred on the acceptance of eugenics. Social problems involving care for the poor and ill, immigration of those viewed as “undesirable,” and the desire for a progressive society led to the implementation of such laws.

Thankfully, our society has moved past this ugly history. Or have we? While the practice of forced sterilization and eugenics laws have crept back into the darkness of history, the idea still exists and is often promoted.

Many in our society now raise the question of whether parents should be limited in the number of children they can have (e.g., population control policies). Advances in medical technology allowing doctors to diagnose diseases in utero raise the question of selective abortion to ensure that a “less than normal” child does not enter the world. The desire for “well-born” children has brought a new branch of medicine to the forefront. Behind those concepts is the practice of eugenics.

What should be our response biblically? We must not lose sight of the value and dignity of the individual human being. We see from Scripture that we are all created with the purpose to glorify God (1 Cor 6:20; 10:31; Rev 4:11). We all have value to God (Matt 12:11–12) and salvation is made available to all types of people regardless of perceived value by the culture (Gal 3:28). Finally, from the womb to the grave, God sees us each as individuals of value and significance (Psalm 139:13–16).

North Carolina was right to acknowledge their responsibility in devaluing the dignity of the individual. Does $50,000 restore that dignity? No. Is the state right in offering some kind of reparations to the victims? Most likely, yes. Have we moved beyond this as a society? Certainly not. We need a biblical perspective of the value and dignity of the individual human being made in the image of God. Without this, we will probably walk down this road again, just in a different form.

_________________________

Tommy Tomlinson, “N.C. task force recommends $50,000 for eugenics victims,” Charlotte Observer, January 11, 2012.

Stanley J. Grenz and Jay T. Smith, Pocket Dictionary of Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003).

Paul A. Lombard, “Eugenics,” in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, eds., James F. Childress and John Macquarrie (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 209–10.