It is a word that has come to mean different things to different people. Some consider it a pejorative, while others use it as a powerful tool in political rhetoric. It conjures images of Nazi brutality and 20th century zealots working to sterilize the unfit. Ask anyone for a definition and you're bound to get a multitude of different answers; when you key define: eugenics into Google it spews out no less than 20 unique definitions.
When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, 'eugenics' can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions).
These two concepts are not married to one another. Transhumanists tend to subscribe to the first point but not the second, leading to the charge that they are liberal eugenicists. China, on the other hand, engages in a form of eugenics that draws from both agendas; the state is actively involved in the ongoing biological re-engineering of its citizens for ideological ends.
More broadly, eugenics is an old Greek term that means 'well born.' The general idea is that genetic constitutions can be improved, either by selective breeding or through more advanced reproductive technologies like applied genomics. Needless to say it is a highly controversial concept with no shortage of detractors.
Dysgenics and neugenics
But what does it mean to oppose eugenics? When one is anti-eugenics what does that actually entail?
There's an old truism (or is that an old Rush lyric?) which states that even when you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. A similar thing can be said about those who oppose eugenics. By consequence, detractors have unconsciously positioned themselves as being either dysgenicists or neugenicists.
Dysgenics is the notion that humans should genetically regress from an evolutionary standpoint and default to harmlessness. Yes, there are people who actually believe we should do this (which, I suppose, is not nearly as bad as the misanthropic Voluntary Human Extinction Movement). Such a standpoint can be interpreted as a kind of oxymoronic Luddite transhumanism where progress is measured not by the increase or refinement of physical and psychological capacities, but instead by their regression. The ultimate goal would be to see civilizations whither away and have devolved humans return to the jungle.
Neugenics, which is the majority bioethical opinion today (and most notably the opinion of bioconservatives, human exceptionalists, and anti-transhumanists), is the conviction that the human genome must not be deliberately altered to any significant degree. The general idea is that Homo sapiens are fine just they way they are and that enhancement will only lead to greater societal discord and/or diminished lives (i.e. a case of more being less). The underlying assumption is that God or nature has already optimized human beings; human enhancement would only knock over this fragile house of cards.
Neugenics is a new bioethical designation that has only come about through the advent of enhancement technologies (which includes artificial selection a la the old school eugenicists). This particular issue has migrated from the theoretical to the practical now that we have the capacity to enhance. It is only by becoming real (or perceived to be real) that an issue becomes political.
And here is where it gets interesting.
If the state sides with the neugenicists and bans the use of enhancement technologies, then it is enforcing a particular vision of humanity, albeit a fixed one. In this sense the neugenicists are similar to the authoritarian eugenicists of the past. In each case individual procreative freedoms have been trumped by the demands of the state (which, in a democracy, is supposedly the consensus opinion).
But any discussion of human reproductive rights must critically examine how the state justifies the abrogation of specific procreative choices. Fewer things are more coercive than state intervention in the reproductive practices of its citizens, especially in consideration of the presumption that parents tend to have the best interests of their children in mind.
As already noted, state control of human reproduction is one of two central tenets in the conventional definition of eugenics; the rationale behind the state’s intervention in this context is irrelevant (whether it be democratic consensus or totalitarian ideology). As the state exerts a greater interventionist role in limiting reproductive options, the greater is its commitment to 'eugenics', or in the case of limiting or denying germinal choice technologies, a commitment to autocratic neugenics (i.e. human genome stasism). One could go even further by suggesting that it is quasi-dysgenic if detrimental traits (such as genetic disorders) are permitted to disseminate and propagate unhindered in the human gene pool (but this is arguable because natural selection already works to prevent this).
Choice not chance
The parental desire for the so-called 'designer baby' is a reasonable one. It represents the next revolutionary step in human procreation and another victory over the blind forces of nature. Prospective parents will no longer have to rely on the genetic roll of the dice when it comes to determining the health and makeup of their offspring.
This said, I'm not so biolibertarian or naive to suggest that we advocate a genetic free-for-all. Enhancement technologies are monumentally powerful and have the potential to cause great social disruption. Make no mistake: state regulation and monitoring will be paramount. What's needed is a smart, non-reactive, and progressive hand.
This issue speaks to the heart of reproductive rights as it is an empowering technology that will allow for greater individual control and autonomy over personal reproductive processes. But like any new technology, it will be subject to abuse and error. And like any other powerful technology, it will need to be regulated and monitored. Child abuse laws are already in effect, for example, and they will need to be applied to those cases in which the guidelines for how parents can or cannot genetically alter their offspring are disregarded or abused.
Prudent and compassionate action
Finally, another problem with the neugenic vision is its non-interventionist position. Ethics and compassion are not passive activities; it is through our actions that we are able to help.
And what is it exactly that we are trying to accomplish vis-a-vis enhancement? It is the fostering of lives that can flourish, self-actualize, and meet their greatest potentials, while ensuring that they are free from as much suffering and undue constraints as is possible.
This is a broad vision for the future. There are no pre-determined and fixed visions of what humanity must become. Rather, it will be through our collective compassionate and common sense actions that we will unintentionally allow the human species to continue to evolve in a positive direction.