What if we lived in a world where eugenics was politically and culturally normalized? What if picking and choosing genes for our kids was not so different from picking out jeans for them (only they haven’t a say in the matter)? What if it was a legal right that we keep the kids we want and discard the ones we don’t? What if we lived in a world where controlling and selecting our offspring, before they arrive, was normal reality?
Several months ago, I started to think about how eugenics, the beliefs and practices which aim to “improve” the genetics of the human population to promote quality of living, might intersect with and be influenced by the practices of abortion and human genetic engineering in the future. The scenario, as I envision it, would be that parents would have some preconceived idea of what their kids should be, in terms of physical traits like size and degree of immunity, and then they will seek to achieve this ideal by means of genome editing at the early stages of the fetus’ or embryo’s life. And if they decide for reason xyz their child doesn’t have that preferred appearance or genetic makeup, then they might choose to abort their child.
The above scene is slightly pessimistic and is closer to a worst-case scenario than a realistically probable one (though, I’m sure some out there will think ‘what’s wrong, here?’). It certainly makes for a great sci-fi plot. My vision is, no doubt, a bleak one. Gene editing, for humans, in the future, will most probably as a practice be restricted to fixing those genes and mutations which render the life more susceptible to diseases, disorders and cancer. In my thinking, if gene modification does become readily accessible to the public, on the large scale that I’m considering, it will most likely be a healthcare service used to treat or prevent diseases. At least, at first. So, there’s a sense in which fears, especially in traditional folk, need to be dialed down. However, it is a fact that abortion, for example, has historically been used, in doubly heinous fashion, to discard “unwanted” life. So, I ask, could the convergence of current abortion trends and breakthroughs in genetic modification theoretically mean an eventual resurgence in culturally normalized eugenics on a broader, more comprehensive scale? Maybe.
Premature Discarding Of Life
In recent times, a legal motion to outlaw the aborting of pre-born children with Down Syndrome, or other genetic abnormalities, has swept numerous states. Ohio, for example, passed a bill making it illegal to abort a fetus after a prenatal diagnosis. The movement more or less coincided or arrived in response to controversial statistics revealing the rather disturbing trend of mothers choosing to abort after discovering that their pre-born child has Down Syndrome. A 2012 study in the US estimated that approximately 60-93% (weighted average of 67%) of pre-born children, in the US, with Down Syndrome (DS) are aborted (1995-2011). There is evidence suggesting the trend in the US is decreasing (or at least not as high as 90%). The data is sparse. Elsewhere, in the UK, 90% of women have abortions after the fetus is diagnosed with DS. In Denmark, only four children with DS were born after prenatal testing in 2016, while the other 98% of positively-tested pre-born children were aborted. In Iceland, close to all pre-born children diagnosed before birth with DS are aborted, leaving just one or two live births annually.
Those who were in favor of the Ohio bill “argue terminating pregnancies in such cases is a form of discrimination stemming from misinformation and society’s growing perfectionism.” Is this a valid concern?
Regardless of motive, abortion is a murderous act. Let’s be clear, we’re talking about the killing of young life–kids. But, of course, the motive isn’t always clear as there are ways of interpreting the data. Maybe the ultimate reason, for some mothers, for getting an abortion wasn’t to do with the child’s Down’s Syndrome or deformity. Maybe. However, articles have been penned and studies have been taken suggesting that there is, in fact, a cultural mindset that exists and accepts the prospect of terminating the pre-born life with DS as a morally valid one. There is a prominent worldview out there saying there are good reasons to abort a fetus you know will have some abnormality or deformity.
For example, a Danish study showed that two thirds of a representative sample of 1000 Danes saw a DS diagnosis as a valid reason for having a late-term abortion. Interestingly, in Denmark abortion is only legally permitted up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, which is relatively strict compared to Canada and the US. However, Danish law permits abortion after 12 weeks if the fetus is diagnosed with a severe physical or mental disorder. Iceland has a similar restriction, only after 16 weeks. These prenatal screens which Danish and Icelandic women get are optional but the vast majority still opt for testing, possibly either to prepare to raise a child with special needs or to terminate.
In the US, there seems to be divided opinion on laws criminalizing abortion after a prenatal diagnosis of DS or some other disorder or “abnormality”. Many opposed use the reason that people should be able to decide what “their life will look like” and how to raise their families, in addition to maintaining my-body-my-choice reasoning. Furthermore, there is growing awareness of the health concerns related to DS and what’s feared to be a diminished quality of life.
Looking at this information alone, though aware of its incompleteness, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that people choosing to abort their pre-born child with DS do so on a basis that ultimately leads one to believe that children–individuals–with Down syndrome are burdensome, excessive labor, “difficult”, and not worth the investment. Their lives are an unnecessary risk, ultimately measured and validated by dubiously forecasting what their lives will amount to. This is and can only be the devaluation of life with DS. This is discrimination.
The trend, as I see it, is a sign that many mothers and fathers have a view of a life that is in some sense hierarchical. Some traits are more desirable than others. Some lives are more “normal” than others, depending on their genetics. It’s an indication of the extent to which many desire control over their domestic lives. It’s an extension of power.
The late British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, once wrote, “The logical sequel to the destruction of what are called “unwanted children” will be the elimination of what will be called “unwanted lives”—a legislative measure which so far in all human history only the Nazi Government has ventured to enact.”
Is there a better example of a eugenic power exercise than the Nazi regime? Hitler’s Reich pretty much pioneered industrialized genetic hygiene. Many critics of gene editing use the Nazi program as an argument against its practice. And what a formidable counter-point it makes. Whether or not the usage of the bloody exercise in systematic weeding of lives counts as a just response to medical advances in gene editing is one question. But it is interesting to consider the model Hitler presented for purposefully eliminating lives, then marked by hair color, ability, sexual orientation and race.
Last October, Scientific American published a transcript of an interview between Dr. Heiner Fangerau, professor of medical history and ethics at the University Hospital Dusseldorf, and two representatives of Gehirn&Geist, a psychology and neuroscience publication. Professor Fangerau took part in new research uncovering the role of neurologists in the “racial hygiene” mission of the National Socialists, of the Third Reich. When asked what the most important findings of his research were, he responded:
Neurology as a discipline was indeed complicit in the crimes of the Nazis. The ideology of racial hygiene combined with opportunistic arguments about compassion and cost reductions served to justify the systematic killing of more than 70,000 disabled and sick people. The Nazis euphemistically called this policy euthanasia. Both neurologists and psychiatrists were involved, and it is often difficult to distinguish who was a neurologist and who was a psychiatrist. The doctors assessed patients, and whoever they found to be either problematic or incapable of working was transferred to a killing facility and murdered. Neuroscientists then used the brains of these murdered patients in their research.
Hitler had the power to tyrannically usher in a tidal wave of medically assisted murders on his own timeline. Today, our leaders give us the individual right to murder as we please (depending on where you live, of course) on a personal basis. But does that make it any less tyrannical? Think about it.
The leaders of the Western world who have legalized abortion–murder–have indirectly ushered in a wave of sorts, however indirectly. Over 60 million abortions in the US alone since Roe v. Wade. Most, I think, would say that abortion can’t be compared with the Holocaust. ‘It’s just not the same.’ Well, what are the differences? ‘During the Holocaust, the victims were born human beings, and killed for a very different set of reasons (race, religion, orientation, disability, etc.). The suffering was just different.’ Let’s think about this though. If the fetus is a living human being (which it is), then abortion is and can only be murder. If it’s murder, then the reasoning behind the killing is nearly irrelevant when considering the morality of the action. It’s discrimination no matter how you slice it. Certainly, the circumstantial differences between today’s abortion crisis, the apparent reduction of Down children population, and the Nazi annihilation of the disabled are material when considering how we treat the matter in legal terms. Justice may look different. But the ethics of killing the disabled, born or unborn, remains the same.
While the number of aborted children with DS is ultimately unknown, it is known that these precious lives are being, to some degree, “eradicated” by the sum of personal decisions made by mothers, doctors and families to abort. So, while not necessarily of a systemic nature, there is a crisis here worth pondering. I think, again, that the current trends are indicative of a societal blemish not far removed from Hitler’s day where people were dehumanized by what was inherited in their DNA.
Breakthroughs in Genetic Engineering and Genomic Prediction
We’ve seen in the past how eugenics might be systematically carried out. We see today how lives called “abnormal” are discarded. What remains to be seen, I think, is how the technology behind gene editing, otherwise called genetic modification or engineering, will affect, for better or worse, the trends we’re seeing.
Genome editing techniques have been used, for the first time ever, to modify genes in human embryos. In China, a procedure called “base editing” was used to fix a gene mutation which would’ve otherwise likely lead to a blood disorder. In the UK, Crispr-Cas9 was used to disable a gene called OCT4 in order to determine its significance in human development. The result of that study was that in the absence of the OCT4 gene in the embryos DNA, the embryos used did not survive past the 200-cell blastocyst stage.
These studies were both carried out last year and they hint at potentially exciting opportunities for medical advancements, like better IVF treatment, as we simultaneously explore means of treating and preventing genetically inherited illnesses. These studies also prompt concerns about whether the creation of designer babies lies somewhere in the future, as well as the ethics of this type of research which relies donated embryos for experimentation.
This is as far as we’ve come with genome editing. There’s plenty to unpack, still, but I think what’s relevant to observe is that (a) the technology behind gene editing is still “basic”, (b) the editing techniques of these studies — they’re ineffective for “designing” genetics as starry-eyed sci-fi enthusiasts like me envision — give us interesting ideas about how to better treat inherited diseases, (c) there are a lot of needless fears out there, and a few legitimate concerns, and (d) the possibility of designing our children is at best (or worst?) still on the horizon.
But while we might not be able to design our children in the near future (and hopefully we never do), we may be able to predict them. By this I mean that are incredibly smart individuals out there who have found ways, using statistical models and such, to predict physical appearance and IQ based on the DNA strand of the embryo. A company called Genomic Prediction has come close to achieving this feat fairly recently (according to the MIT Technology Review).
This, in itself, presents an interesting problem. Say we can’t intentionally modify the genes of our offspring but we can look into their DNA and probabilistically determine their potential hair color and health and intelligence, what would the social and psychological significance be? Would we see more trends in abortions? Maybe. Maybe not. In fact, we don’t even know if the public will ever be able to capitalize on this technology so as to determine which embryos are carried to term. But, if this ever sees the light of day, I’m thinking it might give some the wrong idea.
What’s at Hand?
I asked the question of whether we might see a reemergence of eugenics in Western society as a result of abortion’s growing popularity and our current interest in human gene editing. And my answer was ‘maybe’.
I think it’s certainly possible that we’ll see a future, broad-scale eugenics movement in the West but it just seems so improbable considering the bulwark that is the massively popular humanist progressive liberalism which so fiercely upholds equality and egalitarianism. The problem is, people like Oprah keep insisting that we spread ‘our truth’. So, what does equality (and egalitarianism and tolerance) truly mean in a society that has, whether or not it admits to it, made truth to be so liquid and indeterminate? Well, the powerful and the popular decide, I suppose. So, while on one hand everyone agrees that all people are of equal value, on the other hand people like Justin Trudeau insist that abortion should be a right because it’s a personal choice. Furthermore, it’s apparently popular to think that abortion is justified if we know our child will grow up with a disability, because raising a child with special needs is oh, so difficult and there will be so much suffering for the child.
What is true? Most children, at least from what we know, who are determined via prenatal tests to have DS are killed before they’re born. We know places like Canada have no restrictions on abortion and countries like Denmark and Iceland make a legal exception permitting the abortion of babies with DS and other disorders and disabilities. And we know that in the past, compassion and feasibility have both been used as valid reasons to justify the killing of the disabled on a massive scale. In a way, eugenics is a current reality as it was back then.
What is less obvious is how, if at all, genetic engineering will affect the issue. Maybe it could be used to “cut off” and replace genes leading to disabilities, and that way parents will feel less likely to abort their pre-born children. Of course, there are moral and social questions to be asked about this, but if it were to be the case, lives would potentially be saved. And I think that’s where a lot fears need to be addressed.
If gene editing can be used to eliminate diseases and repair harmful mutations, then I’m all for it. If gene editing is used to get rid of genetically inherited disabilities, then I’d still hesitantly be for it, especially if it means reversing the abortion trends I’ve discussed. If gene editing is used to input genes of all types and eliminate all undesirable ones, unrestricted to those leading to illnesses, then, here, we may have an issue on our hands. This, coupled with a cascading sentiment of ableism and idolatry of Self, and we may indeed see more and more unwanted lives laid waste still.
Photo: U.S. eugenics advocacy poster from the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial Exhibition, 1926, p. 219 of Steven Selden’s “Transforming Better Babies Into Fitter Families” (2005, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149(2)). Rights to image owned by American Philosophical Society.