Elevating the Proper Object: Gene Editing and Eugenics Revisited

I’ve written previously about my curiosity concerning the burgeoning research in gene editing. I stated, then, that with Genomic Prediction and such genome editing technology becoming available, coupled with a psychological disposition to the eradication/avoidance of (people with) disability evidenced by abortion trends, the West might witness a resurgence in eugenics. Indeed, we might already be there.

Philip Ball of the Guardian treated the issue last month so, naturally, I wanted to know what his conclusions were. The article was called “Super-smart designer babies could be on offer soon. But is that ethical?” He opens by discussing a new book by Robert Plomin called Blueprint which explains that we can now guess, at the embryonic stage, a person’s IQ and other traits from what’s called a “polygenic score”. Plomin says the New Jersey-based company called Genomic Prediction can do this now. Ball writes:

Before we start imagining a Gattaca-style future of genetic elites and underclasses, there’s some context needed. The company says it is only offering such testing to spot embryos with an IQ low enough to be classed as a disability, and won’t conduct analyses for high IQ. But the technology the company is using will permit that in principle, and co-founder Stephen Hsu, who has long advocated for the prediction of traits from genes, is quoted as saying: “If we don’t do it, some other company will.”

He ends the article on this note:

So the science behind embryo IQ testing is still shaky. But before we get too indignant about the horrors of designer babies, bear in mind that already we permit, even in the UK, prenatal screening for Down’s syndrome, a disability that produces low to moderate intellectual disability. It’s not easy to make a moral or philosophical case that the screening offered by Genomic Prediction for low IQ is any different. There may be more uncertainty but, given not all IVF embryos will be implanted anyway, can we object to tipping the scales? And how can we condone efforts to improve your child’s intelligence after birth but not before?

The questions are complicated. How to balance individual rights against what is good for society as a whole? When does avoidance of disease and disability shade into enhancement? Should society be more receptive to disability rather than seeing it as something to be eradicated? When does choice become tyranny?

Philip Ball draws the same connection I did in my article from earlier this year which I’m guessing many others have as well. Seeing as there’s a current popular trend in prenatal screening for Down’s syndrome (DS) (which statistically-speaking will probably lead to abortion), genetic editing like this will only promote the eugenic mindset that currently exists. It will only nourish the soil of our anti-disability biases and in so doing wrought an infantile science into a machine of industrialized prejudice.

The questions Ball asks at the end of his piece seem to be hinting at the truth of this. We may not revert back to the forced sterilizations of a century ago. But, genetic editing seems to open a window into a sort of positive eugenics. It will promote the breeding of those fit and able, those deemed worthy, while many will abort the children bearing those undesirable traits. It sickens even to contemplate.

One of the problems here, though, is when Ball asks, “how can we condone efforts to improve your child’s intelligence after birth but not before? One can educate and improve the mind after birth, but before birth has taken place, obviously, if you have an embryo pre-implantation that you know is low IQ, the only option is to implant or terminate, not improve. So the question being asked is absurd. And this touches I think at the fundamental moral sickness of the pro-genetic editing camp, those that would suggest aborting (or omitting) an embryo or fetus with DS.

Are some lives more precious or more valuable depending on how able they are? Some argue with ‘yes’ since those more able or more fit can better improve society. Others would say it is better to abort or oppose implantation of embryos prone to disability or illness in order to prevent a life of suffering. Take for instance Peter Singer. Opposite Andy Bannister (who represented the Christian perspective) on a segment of Unbelievable, Singer had these things to say:

Peter Singer insists that many internally or by public profession believe it is quite alright to discriminate against persons with (some degree of) disability or people whose lives are distinctively marked by suffering as a result of disability. And he pays reference to the abortion statistics to support this claim. Those who would oppose such discrimination would only be contradicting themselves, if they would’ve sought to abort a fetus prenatally diagnosed with DS or another disability. Of course, he says, discrimination of this sort isn’t bad. It is our natural preference to have children who will not suffer.

He anchors this view in an atheistic utilitarian ethic but the problem with this espoused view is many things. It betrays the conscience which would normally tell us not to mercy-kill a disabled person, born or pre-born, or a person we’d perceive to be suffering (unless your name is Robert Latimer) though perhaps certain distinctions can be made between the two cases. It objects to a near-universally agreed upon understanding and acceptance of the fundamental equality shared by all human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and are owed a right to life by virtue of being human regardless of physical distinction. Singer’s view moreover hangs its hat on the rather subjective notion of normality and utility and social benefit. But the more important problem is that the view presented by Singer in those videos is that it ignores the importance of assumptions. In the absence of God, we could venture to question the basis of evolutionary human flourishing as Man’s chief end or the necessity of the moral law for societal order or whether a good, moral life is even an objective possibility. The problem with Singer’s ethic, at this point, is that it halts halfway down the logical line with Atheism as Point A.

I’d like to add one more thought. In my mind, in light of the unanimous backlash against the recent gene editing experiment  in China for example, there’s much to be said about autonomy and where autonomy enters into the discussion on abortion and genetic editing. It seems like most of the Christian and secular scientific community are in opposition to the aforementioned Chinese experiment mainly out of concern for the health of the children whose genetics were effectively modified, which is entirely appropriate. However, I would oppose also out of a concern for the autonomy of those pre-nascent entities, those embryonic human beings. (I feel though that for many the nature of autonomy and so-called autonomous rights is contentious and I hope to treat this issue at length in the near future.)

The more I consider and think on the research and experimentation being performed on rejected IVF embryos, the more I’m starting to think that this whole deal–In Vitro Fertilization, Stem Cell Research, Genome Editing–is out of tune with the pro-life ethic and the Judaeo-Christian bioethical stance. It all must be incompatible if we’re talking about destroying human beings and modifying human beings for arbitrary or impertinent reasons. Scientific advancement and societal improvement is not on the price-tag of a person.

2 Comments

  1. Another very interesting and helpful article, Nate.

    I’m subscribed to the Unbelievable? channel on YouTube and had already watched the debate you embedded in full. When I watched the debate, I was struck by how callous and cold Singer’s position seemed to be. My own feeling is that gene editing is incredibly treacherous territory, because the long-term effects cannot be known. I think that’s an argument that should be taken into account by theists and atheists alike. I dread to think what the human race could become if this science is allowed to flourish.

    Thanks for writing this post, I will share it on Twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Steven,

      Thanks so much for the feedback and for sharing on Twitter. As always your support means the world.

      I felt very similarly as I watched the debate and when I was reading the Youtube comments (which aren’t usually very credible/reasonable), far more comments seemed to be sympathetic towards Singer because of how “calm” and “collected” he seemed. Very disturbing.

      When I was reading about the Chinese experiment (not sure if you’re aware of the supposed experiment where twin girls had been born reportedly with modified genes), the opinion of the scientific community, as I mentioned in the post, was mostly opposed to the experiment largely for the reasons you mentioned. Because not only will these modifications affect the person long term, down the road, but potentially future generations as well, as the genetics are passed on… Anyways, I’m rambling! But I’m glad you’re thinking along the same lines as I am.

      Liked by 1 person

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