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21st Century Eugenics

by Jesse ReynoldsTomPaine.com
June 26th, 2003

If you've opened a newspaper or magazine recently, you've probably seen splashy ads for Botox, as part of a new $50 million direct-to-consumer marketing campaign to promote cosmetic injections of botulism toxin.

The Botox campaign follows other recent news reports about the use of human growth hormones for children who are perfectly healthy, but just happen to be short. In June an advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration recommended, at the request of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, that the agency approve this "treatment."

These are not the only recent stories about high-tech human "enhancements." The year began with headlines of an alien-chasing sect that claimed to have created a cloned baby. After that story, newspapers turned to the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA's structure. That coverage venerated scientists as celebrities and visionaries, and made exaggerated promises about the wondrous future benefits of biomedical research.

But what if all these promises and visions of more perfect humans fall short of their fantasy-inspiring expectations? Unfortunately, there is little evidence of that kind of healthy skepticism and line of inquiry among most science reporters.

One problem with this sort of reporting is that it overlooks potential pitfalls of the new genetic technologies. Just as bad, it implies that procedures opposed by the vast majority of Americans, such as producing a cloned child, are being developed and promoted only by alien love cults, where in contrast, respectable scientists confine themselves to high-minded work that has no other purpose or motivation than curing illness.

But the truth is, some respected and lauded scientists are making far-ranging and disturbing pronouncements about engineering more perfect humans.

The foremost example is Nobel laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, who is also an outspoken proponent of using genetic engineering to "redesign" future children and "improve" the human species. During the recent "DNA at 50" celebrations, The London Times reports, Watson repeated some of the ideas he has voiced many times before: "If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease.... So I'd like to get rid of that.... Those parents who enhance their children, then their children are going to be the ones who dominate the world.... People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

Watson is not alone in his views. A network of academics and other advocates who explicitly look forward to this future will gather June 27 to 29 for the "Transvision U.S.A. 2003" conference at Yale University. There, they will espouse how humans can, with the assistance of new technologies, breed better.

Their holy grail, so to speak, is Inheritable Genetic Modification (IGM), in which genes are altered in early embryos in such a way that the changes are expressed in the child who develops and passed on to all of that child's descendants. One of the conference's opening speakers is Greg Pence, a philosopher from the University of Alabama, who writes in his book Who's Afraid of Human Cloning?, "Many people love their retrievers and their sunny dispositions around children and adults. Could people be chosen in the same way? Would it be so terrible to allow parents to at least aim for a certain type, in the same way that great breeders... try to match a breed of dog to the needs of a family?"

Talk of breeding humans may remind readers of the eugenic practices of the 20th century, which involved forcibly sterilizing thousands of Americans classed as mentally impaired or criminally inclined, in the service of "improving the gene pool." In recent years, three states have issued formal apologies to the victims of these programs. Of course, many people recall Nazi Germany's obsession with eugenics, and later in the century American foreign policy encouraged sterilizations of men and women in the Third World as the best means to deal with population and poverty problems.

What's different today is that the technical ability to "improve" humanity's genes by high-tech methods is on the horizon, and a new eugenics is emerging.

Advocates are quick to disavow the bluntly coercive eugenic practices of the last century. The new eugenics, both proponents and critics say, will rely on the competitiveness of the market. Parents will be free to exercise consumer choice in the selection of their future children's genes -- or at least those who can afford these procedures will be free to do so.

It requires little imagination to see the economic and social outcomes of generations of the wealthy genetically enhancing their children, while most of us are left in the dust as mere Naturals. Even if these "improvements" have little real impact -- which is quite possible since one's environment has an enormous impact on development -- they will fundamentally change how we function as a society. Will we still be able to argue that all people are created equal if some have their very genes enhanced?

One new twist that's particularly disturbing is that advocates of this free-market eugenics are twisting the language of women's rights to push their agenda.

James Hughes, the chair of the Transvision conference planning committee, has argued in a scholarly article that "the right to a custom-made child is merely the natural extension of our current discourse of reproductive rights. I see no virtue in the role of chance in conception, and great virtue is expanding choice.... If women are allowed the 'reproductive right' or 'choice' to choose the father of their child, with his attendant characteristics, then they should be allowed the right to choose the characteristics from a catalog."

But clearly there's a huge difference between being pro-choice and pro-designer babies.

As these proponents are working to make a post-human future more palpable, current scientific developments are beginning to push towards the limits that civil society must draw to prevent this scenario. Each month brings new cloned animals. Scientists have recently turned stem cells into eggs, and learned how to target specific genes in human stem cells. These developments can fuel beneficial medical research, but they are also key to IGM and thus should be effectively regulated.

Fortunately, the cadre of explicit IGM advocates is relatively small. But the strongest voices in the debate have so far been those of the religious right and the biotechnology industry. The former's concern is rooted in the destruction of embryos, and the latter primarily focuses on allowing research to proceed unhindered. Liberals and progressives must provide a third alternative.

Do we want a future of designed children and a new eugenics driven by the biotech corporations and the free market? Applications such as IGM and human reproductive cloning should be opposed because they undermine fundamental norms of equality and will have terrible social consequences. We already know how to effectively and affordably improve the lives of humans around the globe: clean water, food security, basic health care and education.

Manipulating the genes of future generations? We can take that off the agenda.

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