Tuesday, September 04, 2012

On eugenics

I was interested to read ethicist Julian Savulescu saying that parents should have the option of screening their embryos for potential problems like alcoholism and psychopathy, then selecting embryos with lower chances of those problems.

The comments on the article are predictably negative. "Start the process to revoke this clown's tenure." "Sounds like Nazi propaganda to me." "Hopefully, Christ raptures His church before all this genetics crap really gets put into play."

The practical implications of Savulescu's idea are sketchy. In a different article, he suggests that the testing would be for people who were already having in vitro fertilization for some other reason. Also, I trust he's aware that we don't have a medical test for propensity for alcoholism or any of the other problems he mentions. But we're more likely to develop tests if parents would be allowed to use them.

Here are the two reasons I consider eugenics a personal issue.

First, last year Jeff and I found out that there was a genetic disease in the family that might dispose our kids to cancer. While we were waiting to find out more, I thought a lot about whether I would use in vitro fertilization to select for a child without the disorder. Would we abort a child rather than watch her die of breast cancer in her forties like several of her relatives did? Would we gamble that cancer treatment would be better by then? Would we rather keep the money and hope for the best?

It turned out not to be an issue, because neither Jeff nor I have the gene. But if I had needed to choose, I think I would have done almost anything to have a healthy child.

Second, a couple recently asked me if I would consider being an egg donor for them. We talked a lot about the process and about my medical history. In the end, their fertility clinic screened me out because of my family history of depression. Part of me was devastated — who wants to be told your genes aren't good enough? But I agree with the decision: the child will probably be happier and healthier with a different egg donor. If that couple's child is going to have someone else's genes, they should get the best genes they can.

Some objections to my viewpoint:

It's eugenics. Yes, it is. I understand the history of horrible things that have been done in the name of eugenics. But if this particular idea has merit, we shouldn't reject it because some similar ideas have been abused in the past. It is possible to be in favor of healthier children and not to be in favor of sterilizing people against their will, etc.

It's discrimination. The disability rights platform on this is that gene selection is tantamount to saying people with disabilities shouldn't exist. But honestly, depression sucks. If I could choose to have been born without that tendency (even if it meant being a different person), I would.

It will lead to abortion. Yes. Personally, I consider that a small harm to prevent a greater harm.

It will be used to make "designer babies." Let's consider how IVF works: you pay a fertility clinic about $12,000. For two weeks, you inject your own body with fertility drugs that make your ovaries hyperfertile, creating a sensation I've heard described as "like live goldfish." Then they knock you out and use a needle to withdraw the eggs, fertilize them, analyze them, and put the selected ones back in her uterus. 30% chance of medical complications. Oh, and it probably won't result in a live birth. You will probably need to shell out another $12,000 and try again. And again.

Now, how many parents do you know who would go through that to get a baby with their favorite eye color? And if they did, why would that even be so bad? A hundred years ago, IQs were lower and people were generally less healthy, probably because of poor nutrition. Nobody worries that we have "designer children" who are taller, smarter, and healthier than their grandparents.

If we allow the selection of personality traits, governments will want to breed a docile population. No, I would not want governments to control this process. (Despite allegations of fascism, Savulescu also said nothing about governments controlling how people's babies come out.) The only political rumblings I have heard about this is politicians who don't support screening because parents might choose abortion.

In the end, I think very few parents will screen for most disorders because it's so financially and emotionally costly. But I think the tests should be legal, and if parents decide they want to take extra steps to create healthy children, they should be free to do so.


Doug S. said...

The only particularly good objection that I know of to this kind of eugenics is, well, Chesterton's Fence: that, because we don't really understand the genome very well, we could inadvertently get rid of genes that we probably shouldn't. For example, genes that predispose someone to certain mental illnesses might also tend to make them better at music, or something like that. Some of the mutations that cause early breast cancer also seem to be associated with increased female fertility. And, of course, the textbook example of a gene like this is the gene for sickle-cell anemia, which also confers the extremely valuable trait of malaria resistance. Deliberately decreasing human genetic diversity by getting rid of apparently harmful genes might be dangerous in the long run.

Julia Wise said...

I agree that some problematic traits are associated with other traits that helped people survive in the past (high fertility, malaria resistance). But in an era with low child mortality and mosquito nets, I just can't see a good reason to hang onto sickle cell and BRCA.

I could see the genetic diversity argument if humans were some kind of monoculture like bananas. But given that reproduction is not centrally organized and that IVF is so expensive, I expect only a small percentage of humans will ever have their genes explicitly tinkered with. So even if selecting non-alcoholic kids turns out to create problems somehow, there will still be plenty of alcoholism genes out there.