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.