By Jacob Derin
Recently, UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health has been criticized for maintaining a “Genealogical Eugenic Institute Fund.” The fund promised to “support research and education on policies, practices and technologies that could affect the distribution of traits in the human race.”
Though the UC system has good reason to be wary of the ethical ramifications of this kind of research, I don’t think that it must be totally prohibited.
There is an important distinction between “positive” and “negative” eugenics. The former refers to efforts to promote the existence of “desirable” genetic traits in a human population, whereas the latter refers to efforts to curtail the reproduction of those with “undesirable” traits. The worst legacies of eugenics, and the reason why the word still carries so much emotional and moral baggage, is its practice by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, and its role in justifying the Holocaust.
These were mostly examples of “negative” eugenics that used violent, coercive methods, such as murder and sterilization. However, this kind of coercion doesn’t have to be how eugenics is practiced. Modern medicine has given us tools that open up other avenues.
The Genealogical Eugenic Institute Fund sought to study issues “related to family planning, infertility, assisted reproduction technologies, prenatal screening, abortion, gene editing and gene modification.” These technologies now allow for the possibility of reducing the likelihood of a child having genetic diseases or other dangerous genetic traits. Should this avenue of research be forever foreclosed because of atrocities committed in the 20th century?
Of course, there are legitimate reasons for the UC system to worry about these modern “sanitized” eugenics. There are concerns over whether these technologies are really effective and whether they might do more harm than good. The only way to eliminate these concerns, however, is to make a sincere effort to study the issue.
Without research in this area, it can’t ever improve.
Then there are ethical concerns: i.e. is it right to interfere at all in the process of reproduction? Some common objections are that such efforts might make inequality worse, by allowing the rich to essentially “buy better genes,” that these efforts would necessarily be subject to the same kind of prejudices and biases that motivated uglier racial eugenics, and that they represent a threat to existing communities of disabled people.
While the threat of inequality is real and pervasive, I do not find it a convincing argument against the kind of research Berkeley’s fund was doing in this area.
Even if these technologies are very expensive and only available to the wealthy, they still have the potential to do a great deal of good. Any good which can be done for people with potential genetic disabilities or other harmful genetic traits should be embraced. And while the cost will likely be very high in the beginning, like most technology, it will probably become cheaper as scientists get better at producing it.
Biases and prejudices are probably the most morally problematic aspect of genetics research. This is an area with a long history of those biases. However, I don’t think that this has to be the way we do things in the future. Universities generally have fairly strict ethical expectations of studies done with their resources. Just because these biases have been a feature of past eugenics research doesn’t necessarily mean that it will have to be in the future.
The last concern when referring to people with disabilities is, I believe, most easily answered by turning to the distinction between positive and negative eugenics. People have a right to reproduce and not to have the government or medical experts interfere in that process, as the U.S. government has done in the past. But, as long as these kinds of procedures are just tools, which nobody is obligated to use, we do not need to fear that they will pose a danger to the freedoms of people with disabilities.
Technology itself is not a bad or coercive thing. It is just a tool.
The historical connotations of the word “eugenics” will be difficult to get past. It has been a discipline that has justified atrocities and human rights violations. But, with the aid of modern technology and a respect for people’s autonomy, it need not do so in the future.
As long as it is properly regulated, the kind of research done by Berkeley’s Genealogical Eugenic Institute Fund should be allowed to continue.