Skip to content

How Should We Regulate Genetic Enhancement Technologies?

A Guest Post Written by Jonny Anomaly


It’s been 20 years since Allen Buchanan and his colleagues published From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice. The book was a landmark, and it repays careful reading.

But there is at least one kind of question that has been largely (if not entirely) ignored in discussions about whether we should regulate parental choice, once parents have access to technologies that allow them to sculpt the genetic endowment of their children. How should we think about reproductive choices that are good for each but not for all? What should we do when there is a conflict between parents selecting the best traits for their children, when a different distribution of traits might be better from a social standpoint? Another way of asking the question is this: how should we think about situations in which there is a potential conflict between the principle of procreative beneficence and the principle of procreative altruism?

Bioethicists like Dan Brock have argued that, although there should be a presumption in favor of reproductive liberty, there may be reasons to regulate parental choice when failure to do so would produce serious harm to the child, or would undermine a public good. For example, assuming that some degree of cognitive diversity helps groups of people solve complex problems, cognitive diversity in a population is a public good. Other reproductive public goods include maintaining a balanced sex ratio, and preserving immuno-diversity in a world of rapidly evolving microbes.

Let’s take a specific case of a psychological trait. Suppose studies tell us that extraverts tend to have more friends, more sexual partners, and report slightly higher subjective satisfaction than introverts. Now suppose that introverts are more likely to creatively solve important problems when they are left alone, but don’t perform as well as extraverts in social settings. To the extent that it’s possible, individual parents might select for more extraverted children even if it’s socially beneficial to have introverts in a population.

I’m not arguing that these are binary personality traits, or that they’re purely genetically determined. I’m only arguing that traits like these are influenced by genes, and that for any personality trait we can think of, we cannot simply assume that the ability to select or alter our children’s genes will always produce a socially optimal distribution of traits.

In thinking about cases like this, it’s worth mentioning a principle named by Amy Guttman: Regulatory Parsimony. Guttman worries that bioethicists are often too quick to call for rules against using novel biomedical technologies. As Guttman says, “the blunt instruments of statutory and regulatory restraint may not only inhibit the distribution of new benefits, but can be counterproductive to security and safety by preventing researchers from developing effective safeguards.”

By contrast, the principle of regulatory parsimony recommends “only as much oversight as is truly necessary to ensure justice, fairness, security, and safety while pursuing the public good.” While the principle of parsimony is vague, on one interpretation it’s the familiar principle of the least restrict alternative repackaged in a form that applies to synthetic biology in general, and genetic enhancement in particular.

I’d like to give a few reasons to endorse this approach to enhancements for cases in which there is a conflict between what is (believed to be) good for each and what is (believed to be) good for all:

First, complex laws are often easier for powerful people to navigate, and tend to increase unjust inequalities by raising the relative cost of accessing new technologies. For example, medical tourism is already thriving for organ transplants and surrogacy, and it is likely to happen for gene editing and embryo selection as well. Too much regulation can harm the worst off by making access prohibitively expensive, and by creating black markets that are harder for poor people to navigate.

Second, too many laws can crowd out social norms, which are more sensitive to local conditions than laws are. For example, if local sex ratios are likely to deviate from 50/50 as more people use IVF and PGD, it may favor one sex or another in different places. Norms are better than laws at influencing these choices, in part because there is likely to be more value to choosing the opposite of whatever sex happens to be in the majority at a particular place and time.

Finally, regulators have their own biases. They often lack the information needed to find a socially optimal distribution of traits, and lack the incentives to implement it. Past eugenics programs ceded too much authority to the state even if, as Allen Buchanan has argued, states do have a role in promoting informed choice and distributing biomedical technology to parents who wish to select the traits of their children.

I expand on these themes in a new paper, written with Chris Gyngell and Julian Savulescu, and in a recent talk at Duke University.

Is there anything I’m missing?

Jonny Anomaly is an Academic Visitor at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

Share on

2 Comment on this post

  1. Excellent post.

    The big problem not mentioned here is increases in inequalities of the kind we care about — e.g. cognitive, aesthetic, immune. If some opt out of enhancing these up to something like the average level at the time, their children will (correctly) complain that they have been deprived of the opportunity to live a normal life. People will also rationally discriminate against them, and probably see them as a burden to their society, maybe correctly so.

    In this scenario, we’d need either radical decentralization of political power, so different kinds of people can separate, or we’d need to invoke government power to force parents to either not procreate or select traits within what is the normal range at the time.

  2. I think the question, in reality, is ad will be “who”, not “how”.

    Because how we legislate eugenics will be dependant on who is doing the legislation in question. I say this because I live in Sweden, where enforced sterilisation and abortion of people with certain disabilities (autism, among others) were on the books up until the mid-seventies. The social-democrats saw it as a duty to the public common good of the people to sterilise in excess och sixty thousand people over a fifty year period. Welfare for unmarried pregnant women were originally dependant on them agreeing to abortion if they got pregnant without marrying.

    This is not that long ago. People with handicaps and cognitive disabilitties are still actively discouraged from procreating by social services and welfare officers.

    Hence my question of “who”, rather than “how”.

    There is no right answer to your question, not if one goes searching för a morally or ethically true or correct such. Which and whose moral? Anglican christian? Sunni moslem? Laissez faire-free market ethics? Communist/fascist? Different strokes for different folks? Naming one politician you trust with legislating eugenics might be a good start to think about this.

    Another way of looking at it is this: would you say to the face of an autistic person, or someone with cerebral paresis, that you would prefer that they hadn’t been born, or that they would be euthanized? (This is not an accusation – far from it! But if one holds the position that legislation which makes it legal, and therefore morally right in the eyes of the people’s elected officials and thus the people itself, to abort fetuses with disabilities and euthanise or sterilise those already born – well, one should say so. Again, I am not accusing the author of holding this view)

    I write these musings as a former teacher of young adults with various cognitive disabilities, such as Asperger syndrome, with the strong hope that we as a species and a Community will refrain from repeating the atrocities of science wich were perpetrated in Germany, France, Great Britain, the USSR, Japan, the USA, and Sweden during the first half (and a bit in the case of Sweden) of the last century.

    To rationalise why one should have power over another by grading said other as deplorable, or less worthy of life, not becaise of conscious action but on circumstances of birth… well, we, as a civilisation and a species has been down that road time and again.

    With apologies or rambling a bit: it is the middle of Midsummer’s eve after all.

    Rikard, former teacher

Comments are closed.