March 5, 2024

Eugenics revived

Hi there,

If you search in Google News for “eugenics”, the principal story comes from North Carolina. Its legislature recently voted to distribute US$10 million to victims of its former eugenics law. Of the 7,600 people who were involuntarily sterilized in North Carolina, only about 200 are still alive. But compensation is a gesture worth making.

As a state task force said,  “The compensation package we recommend sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are a people who pay for our mistakes and that we do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights.” It was a resounding repudiation of one of the vilest aspects of the 20th century.

So it’s a bit odd to read that British academics are promoting eugenics all over again. In a discussion paper sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s second-largest private funder of medical research, they argue (see article below) that there is nothing wrong with improving the human gene pool, as long as it is done voluntarily and ethically. They don’t support any the nasty stuff which went on in North Carolina and Nazi Germany – only do-it-yourself eugenics with IVF and embryo selection.

The authors spend much of their energy in deconstructing the word “eugenics”. It is such an emotionally-charged term that it is almost impossible to use it in  public debate. But even if you overlook its link to the Nazis and state bureaucracies, do-it-yourself eugenics is morally corrupt. First of all, it necessarily involves discarding large numbers of human embryos. Second, it involves one person treating another person as a thing to be manipulated and reshaped according to his own ideas.

Anyhow, this is a large and complex issue which requires a good deal of thought. DIY eugenics is certainly going to become more common as the technology for selecting genes (and sex) become cheaper. We should be prepared. 

Michael Cook
British bioethicists are promoting eugenic practices.