January 8, 2012

Globe & Mail: Is evolving reproductive technology ushering in a new age of eugenics?

Thorough and provocative feature article in the Globe & Mail: Unnatural Selection: Is evolving reproductive technology ushering in a new age of eugenics?
Recent breakthroughs have made it possible to scan every chromosome in a single embryonic cell, to test for genes involved in hundreds of “conditions,” some of which are clearly life-threatening while others are less dramatic and less certain – unlikely to strike until adulthood if they strike at all.

And science is far from finished. On the horizon are DNA microchips able to analyze more than a thousand traits at once, those linked not just to a child's health but to enhancements – genes that influence height, intelligence, hair, skin and eye colour and athletic ability.

Such tests were devised to help those suffering from infertility. But people well able to have babies the old-fashioned way now opt for IVF and embryo screening, paying a steep premium in return for the chance to have greater genetic control over their offspring.

Critics ranging from religious conservatives to advocates for the disabled worry that a new age of eugenics is rising, propelled not by racists, despots or elitists but by parental aspiration. Says Bernard Dickens, an expert in reproductive law and bioethics with the University of Toronto, this technology is “all part of the quest for the perfect child.”
Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu is mentioned in the article:
The New York University School of Medicine surveyed 999 people in 2009 and found that most supported prenatal screening to eliminate serious diseases, along with mental retardation (75 per cent) and blindness (56 per cent). At least 10 per cent also favoured improving height and 13 per cent considered superior intelligence acceptable.

But Julian Savulescu, the controversial Oxford University bioethicist, believes that society must do more than be tolerant. He claims parents have a moral obligation to select embryos that are “most likely to have the best life, based on the available genetic information.”

That information, he argues, should not be limited to avoiding disease genes, but should include those that might improve intelligence or physical characteristics – even if it maintains or adds to social inequalities. He calls it “procreative beneficence.”

Prof. Savulescu, whom Dr. Nisker has often debated, also believes that society should embrace the genetic manipulation of embryos to endow future offspring with superior traits that inheritance has not provided. Until recently, such engineering was only theoretical. But in 2007, researchers at Cornell University quietly created the world's first genetically modified human embryo by adding a fluorescent gene that allowed scientists to watch it develop. The breakthrough did not become public until the following year, when it was roundly condemned as a worrisome step toward designer babies.
My two cents:
  • I object to the usage of the term "eugenics" in this context. Eugenics is a top-down imposition. It describes a society in which the state is imposing and directing its vision of what the "ideal" human should look like. In this sense, it is a gross violation of reproductive freedoms and individual choice. Many of the technologies described in this article are giving couples increased insight into and control over their reproductive potential. In this sense, it's virtually everything that eugenics is not. 
  • I'm looking forward to the day when we can stop using the term "designer babies" and in its place use a less loaded term, namely human trait selection.

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