Should we decide which breed of humans to create?

  • From:         News  Limited Network
  • October 09,  201212:58PM


Does chance need a helping hand  when it comes to our children?  Source: Supplied

Today it is possible to create designer babies – either by testing embryos,  using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or fetuses, using prenatal testing.

Legislation and National Health and  Medical Research guidelines  restrict the use of these techniques to testing for  the presence of  diseases.

Sex selection and testing for non-disease characteristics, like   intelligence, empathy, altruism, etc. are not allowed. That is, testing  for  diseases and disorders is ok; creating designer babies is not.

The targets of the Nazi and  other eugenic programs, widely employed at the  time in the United States  and Europe, were people with intellectual disability,  the poor and  criminals.

The Nazis would have fully approved of the current system of  eugenics, which  focuses on diseases, including genetic disorders which  cause intellectual  disability like Down Syndrome and Fragile X syndrome.

One disability activist once said to me, “When you say it is ok to  abort a  baby or an embryo with a disability, but not ok to abort a  ‘normal baby’, you  are saying that lives with disability are less  deserving of respect, or have  lower moral status. When you allow  abortion for disability, but not for sex  selection, you are saying that  people with disability have less of a right to  life.”

There is some truth to this. If either the embryo or the fetus has a  moral  status – then it would be wrong to kill either, whether or not a  disability is  present. If the embryo or fetus does not have a moral  status, it should be  permissible to destroy an embryo or abort a fetus  for any reason.

In this way, paradoxically, allowing testing for diseases, but not for other  genes, is eugenic in objectionable ways.

Testing for some characteristic, like intelligence or sex, is  sometimes said  to send a message that people who lack that  characteristic have lives which are  less valuable, of lower status, or  less deserving of respect. Selecting for a  male sends the message that  females are less valuable.

But we should treat all people equally, regardless of race, sex or   disability. So genetic testing is seen to send the wrong message about  the  equality of people.

However, the same is sometimes said about testing for disease.  Testing for  cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome is said to send the message  that such lives  are less valuable, that those people are of lower  status.

This is deeply mistaken. To say that a disease is bad is not to say  that a  person with that disease is less equal or bad in some way. The  problem is some  people identify with their disease, disorder or some  other characteristic about  themselves, like sex.

But we are all individual people, deserving of equal respect,  regardless of  features about ourselves. To say that X is bad, or not  desired by me, is not  say that John or Julie with X has few rights.  Selecting embryos for certain  characteristics or treating diseases are  both entirely independent of the  equality of persons.

The last common objection to creating designer babies is that it will  have  bad social effects. This is easiest to see in the case of sex  selection, where  sex selection has seriously disturbed the sex ratio in  parts of India and  China.

I personally think that social reasons can provide a justification  for  interfering in liberty of reproduction. Massive overpopulation would  be a  reason to restrict fertility. People should not be having ten  children today,  as they did in the past.

But it is important to recognize that this is one of the objections  that  were laid at the door of the Nazi eugenics program: that it tried  to use  restrictions on reproduction (and killing) to bring about a  certain race (the  Aryan race).

To place restrictions on the freedom of reproduction for social  purposes  requires that we really be aiming at some uncontroversially  good social purpose  (not the Aryan race), that the restriction is  necessary to achieve that  purpose, and that there is no less  liberty-restricting policy that could  achieve that purpose.

Bans on the use of genetic testing for non-disease states fail this  test.  Consider two examples. There is no reason that a total ban on sex  selection is  necessary in Australia to maintain a roughly even sex  ratio. The sex ratio  could be monitored, sex selection could be allowed  only for females or only for  family balancing (having a child of the  opposite sex to existing children). All  three of these policies would  preserve the sex ratio, while allowing sex  selection.

Or consider more controversially, future tests for intelligence,  empathy,  etc. One of the major objections to this is that diversity is  necessary for  social functioning. We need a spread of intelligence, the  argument goes, to  fill all jobs. Or we need a certain number of  psychopaths in the population  (though I never really understood for what  – ruining companies?)

These are incredibly controversial claims and a poor basis for restricting  the liberty of people to access genetic tests.

Regulation of genetic testing to bring about social goals is  controversial  and can, in a limited number of circumstances, be  justified. But it should only  rarely constrain the liberty of couples to  access the widest range of tests and  knowledge in making decisions  about reproduction.

The current restrictions on genetic testing, allowing embryos to be  tested  only for the purpose of detecting diseases, are  liberty-restricting,  objectionably eugenic and immoral.

Paradoxically, Australia is much closer to Nazi eugenics by only  allowing  testing of embryos for diseases than it would be if it lifted  the ban on tests  for non-disease characteristics, like sex,  intelligence, empathy, altruism and  so on.

Should we decide what breed of humans to create? Some people believe  that  children are a gift, of God or Nature, and that we should not  interfere in  human nature.

Most people implicitly reject this view – we already routinely screen   embryos and fetuses for diseases. In the case of genetic selection, the   children who come to exist as a result of selection could have been  chosen by  chance.

And they have a reason to be grateful insofar as their lives are  good. We  should use the emerging knowledge from genetics to have not  just healthier  children, but children with better genes. We should give  chance a helping  hand.

Julian Savulescu is Sir Louis Matheson Distinguished Visiting  Professor  at Monash University and Chair in Practical Ethics at  University of Oxford. He will appear on SBS’s Insight program tonight, 8.30pm on  SBS ONE.

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Categories: All Posts, Biotechnology ( New ), Control, Inhibiting Self Determination,, Societal

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