In my opinion, there is a fundamental difference between the past eugenics and present biotechnology even though there lies certain issue of value pluralism. In this essay, I will discuss my views on how past eugenics has cast a shadow of horror in the lives of people and how the current era of biotechnology has made society recall the horrors of the past, along with the methods that should be adapted to ensure that the past practices, that were morally wrong, are not repeated in today’s era of biotechnology.
To differentiate the old eugenics and present biotechnology, the two terms need to be explained briefly. Eugenics, on an overall, is the science of improving the human gene pool for the betterment of the general population and the future generations. The old eugenics aimed at selective breeding among the best candidates with the best genes, supposedly the ones with higher IQ and no “unwanted” diseases, to eliminate the undesirable traits in the offspring, which led to forced segregation and sterilization of mass population. In recent years of the biotechnology revolution, the core idea of human genetic engineering, the ability to screen out certain kinds of features and conditions from existing people and future generation and manipulating genes to add desirable attributes, is feared to have been manifested from the early eugenics movement. The movement goes back to the late 80’s and it was quite global and manipulative. The idea with eugenics was to find an overall solution to the emerging diseased issues that apparently was causing the degeneration of the gene pool. Countries that strongly took part in and actively supported eugenics before the Nazi’s gained power were Finland, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Norway, Russia China, Argentina, France, Japan, Mexico, Italy and Sweden and because of the way it was pursued, left a long-term terrorizing fear on society. (Lotz, M. 2018)
During world war II, in Auschwitz Nazi concentration camps, doctors willingly participated in the scientific investigations and experiments which led to mass suffering and killing of unconsenting people. The “so-called” doctors killed feeble people with phenol injections, supervised death of people with contagious people in gas chambers and were also instructed on how to burn the bodies altogether. They atrociously butchered the so-called unfit and decided who could not live and who could to fill their labor needs of Auschwitz (2). Even children were not spared. The Germans sorted out the fit and unfit and instructed the caregiving facilities to murder them to ensure the integrity of the gene pool.
What changed over the years is that the new biotechnology era takes into consideration the consent to the people, which is a very important factor in any sort of scientific experiment or treatment and which lacked in the old eugenics. In today’s era, everyone in the society is given a choice whether they want to be genetically tested and no one is forced into any sort of experimentation or harsh sterilization based on the results. Whereas in the past, individuals had no choice over being tested and were viciously screened out as “unhealthy” and intervening approaches were taken by restricting them from reproducing at all, prohibiting them from the freedom to decision making. In that era, reproduction was not considered a private matter, rather more of a social consequence. (1)
My alternate argument, in which there is no fundamental difference between the old eugenics and present biotechnology, would be the underlying goal of improving the overall gene pool and the betterment of humanity both for the existing people and the future generation. This includes the modern genetic screening techniques such as pre-implantation diagnosis and in vitro fertilization that helps prospective parents to decide which embryo is genetically healthy and whether to have the baby or not. This process of eliminating embryos with genetic defects is not easy and cheap and not possible for everyone in the society to do prenatal genetic testing. This will create a barrier between the people who have got genetically tested and those who haven’t have the opportunity or capability and maybe end up having a child with an undesirable trait; this again leads toward a eugenics movement from the past.
I will still strongly stand on my ground and argue against the alternate viewpoint, even though the objective of the past eugenics and present biotechnology are pretty much similar in terms of improving quality of life. This, in fact, might lead to a slippery slope. While there are limitations to this theory, this gives prospective parents enough choice whether they want prenatal genetic testing for the betterment of their unborn child. Parents have the right to decision making in having a healthy child with no disability (3). It is obvious that families will not want their kid to have Down’s syndrome or Tay-Sachs. Most parents will want to have the option of genetic analysis of the embryos to get rid of certain disabilities or diseases and have healthy babies. While others might want kids with more intellectual abilities and more athletic kids. A report by Benedikt Härlin acknowledged to the European Parliament said that there was an increased pressure for individual genetic testing to ensure that the future children in the society are given the best of what they can get (3). On the other hand, modern biotechnology is far more advanced than just genetic testing and the researches and experiments performed, and the technologies used are all much ethically and morally acceptable. Researchers today have developed several sophisticated scientific techniques in the field of genetic medicine that are bound by ethical principles. If an individual has an inherited disease and has the option to do the prenatal genetic diagnosis to find out whether their future child has the risk of inheriting the trait can be very liberating to the prospective parents (3).
Buchanan et al.’s reading highlight five propositions on where eugenics went wrong. Firstly, it was stated that eugenics primarily focused on replacement rather than therapy (1). Eugenics aimed at selective breeding to make better humanity instead of bettering the existing people, helping people, providing preventive therapies to the diseased people. The eugenic authorities failed to appreciate diversity and forced fears onto people with certain traits of giving birth to an unfit or disabled child. People with epilepsy, alcoholism, prostitution, pauperism, criminality were considered to have inherited the faulty genes from their families (1). Such misjudgements existed during the past eugenics. We now have enough knowledge of genetics to eliminate such misjudgements of the past era. Secondly, Buchanan et al. questions that what criteria the eugenicists have set for the best human trait in a society so complex, everyone having different characteristics. The idea of human perfection by the eugenicist was questionable and snobby. They targeted a limited list of traits from the upper-middle class to be perfect while looking down upon the people with poverty. Intelligence was the first on the list and it was believed that people with low intellectual ability are the ones who end up unemployed and commit crimes (1). This self-glorification was one of the most immoral acts of eugenics back in that time.
Thirdly, the violation of reproductive freedom has crossed several boundaries in terms of sexual segregation and sterilization. Diane Paul (1996) objected to being blamed for coercion and argued that this was not the case in the United States. Yet after the start of the human genome project, any debate over the social implications of human genetics had caused doubts in the general public whether it was the return of the past eugenic movement (3). However, countries with weak legal and moral structure did create laws against reproductive freedom which included eugenic provisions. Another major problem was the association of the state with eugenics. James Watson (1997) clearly stood against the macro eugenics and stated that if it was not for the involvement of the state, such inhuman activities of sexual segregation, sterilization, and murder could not have happened on such a mass scale (1). On the contrary, I would say there must be a minimum state involvement just so that there are enough laws and legislation enforced on the public for their own freedom, protecting them from the fears of past eugenics. Lastly, Buchanan et al. described the lack of distributive justice where Daniel Kevles (1985) portrayed eugenics as being cruel for placing the gene pool as superior before the individual right and need of humankind. The group of people who paid the price of such involuntary actions was the ones from the “underclass” (1). The term was specified to the victims who were screened out from the gene pool. Such inequality bedeviled the society to a much greater extent.
Ethical measures should be taken to ensure such horrendous acts are not repeated in this new era and for doing that we must know what justice is and pay attention to any social injustice around us. Two ethical principles can be taken into consideration from the lecture “Eugenics and Research Ethics” by Mianna Lotz that explains the justice principles. The first one being the idea of distributive justice. We must ensure that the distribution of good in a society, namely education, healthcare, taxation, etc. are just and fair. This distribution should not be biased to the poverty-stricken people and they should not be prevented from accessing the key social goods. Even all disadvantaged people have the right to universal health care and public schools no matter how poverty struck they are. The second justice principle was in achieving equality of opportunity. This coincides with the previous principle and states that distributing the benefits is not the only thing that’s important, we must also ensure that there is no barrier to accessing those goods given the society has made the goods available (Lotz, M., 2018). This lack of opportunity arises from discrimination. We should also ensure that everyone in a society has the equal opportunity by eliminating discrimination from its roots. People with higher intellectual ability or “better” genes should not be prioritized over the others. As Mianna said “It is not unjust to give a little more to some people in society, it is rather unjust to treat everyone equally”, sometimes being unequal in the distribution of benefits and burden can be the true justice (Lotz, M.,2018). Mianna also mentioned creating a level playing field so that everyone has equal access to the opportunities. A third principle to ensure justice is to recognize the diversity of people and their ideals and to make sure no one is coerced into using technologies like genetic screening or genetic therapy. Their decision should be respected rather than penalized, they should always be given the right to decision making.
To ensure that the past practices are not repeated we need to have a clear idea of what is just and what is not. Today we have adequate knowledge of genetics to decide for ourselves if the researches and experiments in biotechnology and medicine are biased. Many practices in the past were manifested in an unjust way which leads to the failure of justice, which is what cast a shadow of horror in the current era of biotechnology. But in the present time, we know what went wrong with eugenics and we should use our knowledge and moral as well as the ethical principles to make sure those mistakes are not repeated in the future.