Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Biotechnology and Human Identity

Michelle Kirtley


August 31, 2007

Eugenics—the effort to “improve” our species by active intervention in human reproduction—was a mainstream movement in the West, including the United States, until Hitler’s atrocities forced many of the ideas underground. In the 1920s, dozens of states forced the sterilization of convicted felons and the mentally ill. Fortunately, the use of selective breeding to bring about racial purification is now taboo in most developed societies.

Eugenics on the individual level, however, remains very popular. In 1992, over 40 percent of Americans said that they would use genetic engineering to make their children more intelligent or to “upgrade” them physically.

Modern reproductive technologies have redefined the ways in which parents can actively intervene in the heredity of their children. Infertile couples who need either sperm or egg from a donor now choose the “fittest” candidates. Those who can afford the price tag pay up to $50,000 for eggs from an attractive, accomplished, Ivy League woman. Although these parents still roll the genetic dice when it comes to the exact qualities of their children, they feel they are vastly improving their odds by choosing the “best” genetic material to mix with their own.

For parents who prefer a little more certainty in their eugenic endeavors, many in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics now offer genetic screening of embryos (called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD) so that only the genetically fit are implanted. To perform PGD, doctors remove a single cell from an 8-cell embryo and perform a battery of tests to assess the fitness of the embryo for implantation. Embryos that fail to meet their parents’ criteria are frozen indefinitely or discarded. Fertility doctors use PGD to screen for chromosomal abnormalities, many of which would result in miscarriage. Doctors also use PGD to select against embryos with Down’s syndrome or embryos that carry a risk of certain hereditary cancers. Many IVF clinics allow parents to proactively choose the gender of their child or match the tissue to a sick sibling who may need a transplant.

In the United States, there are no federal laws preventing these reproductive technologies from being used for eugenic purposes and few states restrict the practice of PGD. As the genes that underlie various physical and mental traits are uncovered, knowledge about them may also be offered to parents trying to select the “best” embryo.

What, if anything, can and should be done? What are the implications of allowing parents to handpick the genetic traits of their offspring? In order to wisely regulate these and other biotechnologies, our society needs to engage in a robust discussion of what it means to be human. Like many of the controversial bioethics issues that divide us, including embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, and abortion, questions about biotechnology are in essence disagreements about the nature of the human person and the role of government in defining and preserving human dignity. These issues must be addressed for there ever to be enough popular (and therefore political) will to enact meaningful regulation of the IVF industry. Unfortunately, critics often reduce the suggestion of any regulation of reproductive technologies to “a back door attempt to regulate abortion.”

Yet technology, whether biotechnology, nano-technology, or artificial intelligence, will continue to challenge simplistic views of humanity. In a recent op-ed, David Brooks, with self-deprecating humor, outlined the dark future that these modern-day eugenic technologies may unveil (New York Times, 6/15/07). Film writer and director Andrew Niccol drew attention to the same issues in his thought provoking film GATTACA. Sadly, such efforts in the mainstream media are few and far between. If our cultural and political institutions fail to engender a deep and thoughtful view of humanity, these technologies will continue to develop unbounded by any moral ethic higher than survival of the fittest.

—Michelle C. Kirtley, Ph.D.
    Science Policy Analyst

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”