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Nazi Eugenics Returns to Germany: The Paradox of Eugenics

The prestigious scientific journal, Nature, reports that Germans are poised to allow genetic testing of embryos for serious genetic disorders. This follows a recent judicial judgement that genetic testing of embryos for serious disorders did not fall under German laws that ban destruction of embryos. Now,

The Leopoldina, Germany’s national academy of sciences, has published a report strongly recommending that preimplantation genetic diagnosis of early embryos be allowed by law when couples know they carry genes that could cause a serious incurable disease if passed on to their children.

Parliamentarians are yet to vote but back in October,

German chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to a free parliamentary vote on the issue, and announced that she personally supports a ban. Critics of preimplantation genetic diagnostics fear it will encourage designer babies, with parents trying to select for eye or hair colour. The issue is particularly sensitive in Germany where eugenics was practised in the Nazi era.

The Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is concerned because this might encourage designer babies, where parents choose hair colour and eye colour. Yet German parliament seems set to fall in line with the rest of Western Europe where genetic testing is allowed for serious genetic conditions.

These reports seem to imply that Germans, like people I have surveyed and talked with, believe that it would eugenic to select non-disease traits, like hair colour and eye colour, but not eugenic to discard embryos which have serious genetic disorders.

Ironically, this is 100% around the wrong way. It is eugenic to select healthy embryos, but not eugenic to select eye and hair colour. Eugenics means “well born”. It is selecting embryos which are better, in this context, have better lives. Being healthy rather than sick is “better”. Having blond hair and blue eyes is not in any plausible sense “better”, even if people mistakenly think so.

This repeats the mistakes of the Nazis – to employ a comprehensively and deeply flawed conception of value. It makes no difference to anything, except the trivial desires of some confused people, if people choose blond haired and blue eyed children. It does of course make a difference, in many important ways, if people choose children with serious diseases, or allow nature to make those choices.

Paradoxically, it is eugenic to select healthy rather than diseased embryos and not eugenic to select blond hair and blue eyes.

I argued many years ago that if we limit genetic selection to only selection against serious disease, we are practicing objectionable eugenics, like what the Nazis did. We are legally limiting reproductive choices according to how we value life.

I have argued that we should select the best children. But I have also argued that people must be free to make their own reproductive choices and to use genetic testing to make any kind of choice, provided their child will have a life worth living. To grant procreative liberty is the only way to avoid the objectionable form of eugenics that the Nazis practiced. That involves the freedom to choose a child with red hair or blond hair or no hair.

When I first gave my paper on why we have a moral obligation to choose the best children back in about 1998, Gregor Wohlbring, a disability rights advocate said to me (roughly), “What I object to is people who support genetic testing for disability but oppose sex selection. What this says is that your life is less worthy of protection if you have a disability. If you allow testing for disability, you should allow testing for everything, including sex.”

I think he is exactly right. Germans are unwittingly poised to return to the worst form of illiberal eugenics. At least they are in good company with the rest of Europe.

The rational and right way to employ genetic testing is to allow procreative liberty and allow people employ genetic testing in the ways in which they believe best satisfies their plans for a family. We can satisfy morality by advising and educating people about choices which make for the best opportunities for their future children. But respect for liberty is the best vaccination against the evils of Nazism.

(With thanks to Philosophy Bites Daily for the link).

A selection of our publications on genetic enhancement can be found at this link.

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13 Comment on this post

  1. “What this says is that your life is less worthy of protection if you have a disability.”
    No it doesn’t – it says of *fetuses* that *their* lives are less worthy of protection if they have a disability.

    1. Excellent point, one which often gets ignored. There is a significant difference between an unborn fetus and an autonomous person, with or without a disability.

  2. Thanks Simon. Good to see you are on your toes. Strictly speaking, you are right.
    However there is a bit more to it. Either the fetus has a right to life or it does not.

    If the fetus has a right to life, it is discrimination against the disabled to kill disabled fetuses. It is wrongful and discriminatory killing. Like what the Nazis did.

    If the fetus does not have a right to life, it is not wrong to kill a disabled fetus. But nor is wrong to kill a normal fetus. To allow killing of disabled fetuses but not normal fetuses is a form of discrimination. It is treating fetuses differently, even though there moral status is the same. It is elevating the normal fetus to special unjustified status. If the fetus does not have a moral status, then it is not wrong to kill it because it will have blond hair, a cleft palate or because it is entirely “normal”.

    Objectors are liable to complain that there are other reasons why abortion of fetuses because they have an undesired sex, hair colour or other trait is based on broader social harms.
    However, the point is NOT really that either abortion is right or wrong based on the status of the fetus. The point is that the only legitimate ground for laws which prevent abortion would be serious direct harm to a being with status. The only candidate for such a harm is the fetus. So the only ground for legally preventing abortion would be if the fetus has moral status and it was wrong to kill it. So if it is permissible to kill a disabled fetus which would have a life worth living, then the fetus does not have moral status. So there can be no grounds for preventing people from terminating pregnancies or killing embryos for any reasons. It might still be wrong in the sense that they are failing to meet their moral obligations. But there are no reasons to infringe people’s liberty to make these kinds of decisions because the fetus and embryo lack moral status.

    I have argued for very demanding moral obligations: to select the best child. Few people come close to that currently. But they should be legally free to fail to meet this moral obligation.

  3. Thanks Julian. I disagree with the all-or-nothing picutre you paint of moral status and a right to life, for reasons raised ably by Michelle and Matt in response toyour earlier post. I think human fetuses ought morally to be treated with a certain level of respect, and this gives us obligations not to treat them in certain ways but permits us to treat them in other ways. Therefore, the reasons for which we choose to kill a fetus may be morally significant. If we kill a fetus in order to give another child a better life, that might be sufficient reason to be an action consistent with showing appropriate respect for the fetus. If, on the other hand, we kill a fetus just for fun, or because we just fancied a red haired child rather than a blonde haired one, that may indicate an insufficient level of respect for the fetus. The case is parallel to that of animals: many of us think it could be permissible to kill some animals for medical research or for food, but not just because we don’t appreciate the colour of their fur, or for the fun of killing them.

  4. Thanks Simon. So you think that the fetus does have a right to life if it is normal and our reason to abort is because it has blond hair, but not if it is disabled? So you think it sufficiently respects the disabled fetus to kill it, but it would disrespect a normal fetus if we killed it because it had blond hair? If moral status is not all or none, presumably is gradational. But the disabled fetus falls on a lower part of the line to a normal fetus, on your view. This all sounds like just what Gregor Wohlbring was complaining about.

    Interestingly, no one takes this scalar view of right to life at the end of life. Either you have moral status or you don’t.

    Another problem with the scalar view is how much respect is the fetus precisely entitled to and in what circumstances? I have never heard this view cashed out in any more detail than “the fetus is entitled to some respect.”

    1. “But the disabled fetus falls on a lower part of the line to a normal fetus, on your view”

      Not at all. Both are deserving of equal respect and have equal status: that’s why it would be impermissible to kill either of them because it has blonde hair. Perhaps I should have been a bit more careful with my initial comment: the lives of seriously disabled fetuses are less worthy of protection *in one respect*, namely in respect of the fact that an alternative able child could be reasonably expected, all things being equal, to have a better life.

      “how much respect is the fetus precisely entitled to and in what circumstances? I have never heard this view cashed out in any more detail than “the fetus is entitled to some respect.””

      On a scale of one to one hundred, it’s entitled to a respect of fifty eight in all circumstances.
      Seriously, you can’t be objecting to a moral view that it requires the exercise of good judgment, or that it involves vague concepts. Suppose you’re assessing candidates for a job and candidate A has publications that you see are clearly better than candidate B’s. Are you going to doubt that they are better because nobody can say “how much precisely” they are better?

  5. I think there is one more problem here.
    Julian argues that procreative liberty must be respected.
    But if the parents (for ideological or religious reasons) refuse to perform a PGD on the embryo, knowing that they have a family history of a serious disease (like Duchenne or Crest), can they be held legally responsible for wrongful birth? I think it’s a very plausible idea.

    1. Could this argument be extended beyond genetics? e.g. if the parents knew they were going to bring a child into an environment that would likely lead to the child suffering?

      David Benatar has argued that it is always a harm to come into existence, and therefore always wrong to have children (at least from the child's perspective). I don't agree with his argument, because of what seems like dodgy metaphysics, but given that we can never be entirely sure that a child will have a life worth living, are we taking an immoral risk by bringing any child into the world?

  6. Surely the question of eugenics hinges less on the value one places on characteristics of a fetus, and more crucially on how one values a child. Why is sexual selection of fetus not sexual discrimination, if the utility of eugenics is about creating children who will be more greatly valued? Or, more to the point, less like likely to be discriminated against? The remedy for immoral discrimination again individuals is not eugenics, it is to end discrimination. This is a different category of eugenics than one whose utility is about not creating children whose likely experience of suffering is much greater than the possibility of their well-being, because of disease and/or the ability to provide for the child’s needs.

  7. “Interestingly, no one takes this scalar view of right to life at the end of life. Either you have moral status or you don’t.”

    Julian, I wondered how our attitudes to war might fit into this. We have a right to life as born humans with moral status, but it can be taken away by governments if they decide to go to war. Some wars are considered just and others unjust– one of the key factors is often the reason for going to war in the first place and another one might be the targets during the course of the war, so attacking a school would be considered more unjust to attacking a factory, even if the same number of civilians were to be killed.

    So it seems to me that even as born humans, our rights to life in that context are scalar- they are subject to reasons, and we give some types of people a greater right to life than others.

    I personally think that in an ideal world, all foetuses and all born humans would have a right to the best life they can have. But since we are not in an ideal world, and may not be able to provide that best life, we should at least think carefully about the reasons for overriding this and be sure that they are compelling. However, I agree with you that the best place for this decision is with parents (suitably advised, educated and supported).

  8. One more go at arguing that right to life is threshold not scalar. What the threshold view entails is that one either has a right to life or one does not. It does not come in degrees. Of course, as Locke recognised, one can lose one's right to life, when for example one attacks the life of another. However, moral status is not the only source of reasons. It is wrong to destroy a beautiful art work. This is not because the art work has moral status or a right to life. It is because value provides reasons for action. Likewise, it might be wrong, even seriously wrong, to make ear rings out of fetuses or embyos not because the fetus or embryo has a right to life, but because this offends people, contravenes the symbolic value attached to human life, etc Thus we can agree with Simon that the reasons for which a fetus is killed are relevant to the rightness or wrongness of that killing without going on to claim that the fetus has a variable moral status and right to life. We can also agree with Mary that one thing that matters crucially is how one values one's child. It is true, as Simon says, or at least implies, that killing a fetus for fun would be wrong. But that is not because of the fetus' moral status. It is because that is a bad reason for action. Peter Singer famously argued at one point that it is not wrong for humans to have sex with animals who enjoy it. If this is wrong, it is not wrong because it fails to respect the animal's moral status. It would be wrong because of something to do with the quality of the reason for action, that it is a bad reason for action, that there are just better things to do with one's time, or something like that.

    For what it is worth, I think that having a healthy child is like producing a piece of beautiful art. It is something we have a reason to do, which can of course be outweighed by other reasons, like one's own existing commitments, life plans, etc But to believe we have a good reason to bring children into existence is not to imply that possible people or future people have some kind of right to be brought into existence in virtue of their moral status.

    I think we can have all the normative dialogue we need without making the implausible claim that the embryo or fetus has a special moral status and a right to life.

  9. Thanks Julian.

    Sometimes I think of a right as just the converse of an obligation: when you have an obligation to some person or creature, it has a corresponding right. Thought of this way, rights need not be absolute, since obligations generally have exceptions in certain circumstances. Generally, I have an obligation not to take your car without permission, but in a life-threatening emergency this may not be so. Converseley, we may say that you have a property right in the car that grounds a demand that I always get permission from you to use it – in all but the most unusual circumstances. (Note that even in those life-threatening emergency circumstances, I am still obligated not to use your car unless I am using it for the right reason – I can't use it to go touristing, for example, just because there happens to be an emergency going on that *could* ground my legitimate use of it.) The illustration shows that there's nothing special about rights -understood in this sense – that means that they must be absolute, inviolable "side-constraints" on our action. (Thought of course we could if we wanted reserve the word "rights" to pick out only absolute, inviolable side-constraints on others.)

    Now similarly, since we are arguably obligated to respect human fetuses and to not kill them except for the right sorts of reasons, we may say that they have a "right to life" in most circumstances. This proposition only depends on (i) the existence of the relevant obligation, and (ii) the fact that the obligation is owed specifically *to* the fetus. However, since, like you, I'm not sure about (ii), I'm actually not sure that a fetus has a right to life.

    As you point out though, Julian, we can still have "all the normative dialogue we need" without the language of "right to life" (which I must point out is language that I, for one, have not used!). I think it would be a mistake to suppose that our reasons not to treat fetuses in certain ways are grounded in fundamental reasons to do more prudent things with our time though! One can still maintain that we have *moral obligations* to treat fetuses in certain ways (as I have *moral obligations* to treat your car in certain ways) even if we have no obligations *to* the fetus (or *to* the car). And personally, I think there are moral obligations of this kind, stemming from a duty of respect toward a biological thing that many people value very highly indeed as a potential future person.

  10. Thanks Simon.
    I used "right to life" because it is the dominant terminology in the debate. I don't think a right to life is like a right to a car. However, I do think we have reached a point of consensus. You claim in the end, "I think there are moral obligations of this kind, stemming from a duty of respect toward a biological thing that many people value very highly indeed as a potential future person."

    I argued with Ingmar Persson (Actualizable Potential, Reproduction, and Embryo Research: Bringing Embryos into Existence for Different Purposes or Not at All Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (2010), 19: 51-60) that the moral status of the fetus is derived from the value which relevant people (usually its parents) place on it. It is a derivative moral value. I'll write a short blog on this.

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