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The New Eugenics

by Jesse ReynoldsZ Magazine
October 31st, 2002

As this article is being written, delegates from nearly every country are meeting at the United Nations to take the next steps towards an international convention banning human reproductive cloning. Human cloning is the latest, and loudest, in a series of new technologies of human reproductive and genetic manipulation that have – and will – elicit controversy and division in civil society. Additionally, enormous payments to egg “donors” with specific characteristics have been in college newspapers for several years (see “Assisted Reproductive Technologies,” July/August 2002, Z Magazine). Recently, the use of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, in which embryos are screened for certain genetic characteristics before implantation via in vitro fertilization (IVF), for gender selection or non-disease traits has garnered attention. Soon, we can expect to see public debate over inheritable human genetic engineering, the technology with the greatest potential for social and biological impacts.

Human reproductive cloning is neither far-off science fiction nor banned taboo. The technology is imminent, and several rogue scientists are working to create cloned children. Although more than thirty countries have already passed laws prohibiting reproductive cloning, the U.S. has not. And the U.S. media, instead of focusing on the Senate’s recent failure to ban a technology that upwards of 90% of Americans feel should be prohibited, offers touching stories of couples desiring clones and focuses on the antics of cloners like Severino Antinori. The resulting sympathy and spectacle serve to only further muddle the issue.

What reproductive cloning and the other technologies mentioned above have in common is the ability to pre-select the genetic composition of our offspring. Children will no longer be unconditionally accepted ends, but instead become utilitarian means. Coupled with the continuing prevalent belief in “genetics-as-destiny,” people will increasingly be seen as genetically superior or inferior. A new eugenics, driven by the “free” market and technological innovation, will be ushered in. Worse yet, if advocates succeed in reframing reproductive cloning as a matter of “choice,” and human inheritable genetic engineering as “eradicating disease,” this may occur with the consent, if not blessing, of liberals and progressives.

Of course, in the market of genetic “improvement,” only the wealthy would have access (“Yuppie Eugenics,” March 2002, Z Magazine), and the already socio-economically privileged will then be the genetically privileged. Those who struggle for human rights, equality, and social justice must oppose this horrendous future of genetic castes. It is worth noting that the eugenics movement of one hundred years ago was largely the product of the Progressives and advocates of reproductive freedom. Yet it resulted in hundreds of thousands of forced sterilizations in the United States, and – after being mixed with the evil logic of fascism – far worse in Europe. Barbara Katz Rothman, a professor of sociology, has warned that, “The lessons of history have shown us what happens when people are ordered as better and worse, superior and inferior, worthy of life and not so worthy of life…. What can happen when the technology used in support of genetic thinking is not the crude technology of shackles and slave ships, of showers that pour lethal gas and of mass ovens, or even the technology of surgical sterilization, but the fabulous, fantastic, extraordinary technology of the new genetics itself?… My children will not be led to genetic technology in chains and shackles, or crowded into cattle cars. It will be offered to them.” As much as both progressives and liberals might shudder at this prospect, mustering their opposition to the new techno-eugenics clearly presents unique challenges.

As we have seen with agricultural genetic engineering, biotechnology and related industries hope to utilize intellectual property claims and neoliberal trade structures to privatize the genetic commons. We can expect them to continue to strive for this goal, and to enter the lucrative market of “designer babies” for the wealthy, by using the tactics honed in the cloning debate. Imagine this future:

Reproductive cloning is dubbed “temporally offset twin birthing.”

Potential bans are recast as infringing on a woman’s right to choose and discriminating against future clones.

Somatic (non-inheritable) human genetic engineering will be offered to cure disease.

After a few “accidental” inheritable genetic modifications, such practices are then defended, and later marketed, by the biotechnology industry as ending diseases forever and removing dangerous genes from the human gene pool.

Since there is no clear line between curing disease and genetic enhancements (e.g. removing the gene for the propensity towards obesity), before long wealthy parents are designing their children’s genome for good looks, intelligence, athletic ability, and economic competitiveness.

At each of these stages, the proponents of the new eugenic technologies will try to normalize them, despite widespread impulses of repugnance, by making stepwise arguments. More ominously, they will try to manipulate traditional political conflicts to divide their opponents. Most progressives and many social conservatives share a worldview envisioning humanity as a set of inherently equal beings that are members a community more important than the economic transactions therein. However, the biotechnology industry has two cards to play in order to fracture this coalition, both seen with recent cloning debate.

First, by arguing that reproductive technologies open up more “choices” for women, and that any bans violate a woman’s right to control her body, they not only win over liberals but cause opponents on the right to wave the “pro-life” flag even higher.

Second, biomedical research remains a sacred cow, largely immune to much of the criticism traditionally hurled towards other similar industries. Few critics of corporate power will pause at accusations of irresponsibility of the nuclear power, chemical production, or even the pharmaceutical industry. But highlighting the drawbacks to certain medical research, such as its focus on profitable cures for the wealthy and its patenting of the biological commons, is too often equated with halting medicine, and thus tantamount to murder.

The issues surrounding these new technologies, with their horrendous potential impacts, fail to fall into the traditional boxes and arguments of politics. This leaves opposition to their use, particularly from progressives and liberals, vulnerable to political manipulation by their proponents. The imposition of a false right-left dichotomy by the biotechnology industry and radical libertarians causes the critics of excess corporate power to be divided, marginalized, and ultimately defeated – despite their majority.

Increasingly, major issues of concern to progressives can be better understood in the context of tensions between a communitarian worldview based in social justice and solidarity, and that grounded in libertarianism. This has resulted in new coalitions. For example, in the case of global investor-rights agreements such as FTAA and WTO, some social conservatives joined with Greens, socialists, and labor unions to oppose the agenda of corporate economic libertarians, both Democrat and Republican. Clearly, the libertarian sentiments in the Left have been manipulated by the rhetoric of economic elites and corporate interests to divide and conquer their critics. This will surely be attempted again, and we must be cautions when prioritizing these libertarian values at the expense of social justice – especially when those that are speaking the loudest for “freedom” are in positions of socio-economic privilege.

The present deliberations at the United Nations are a step in the right direction, and an opportunity that should not be missed. No nation has expressed opposition to a ban on human reproductive cloning. However, as in the U.S. Senate, the issue becomes muddled over research cloning, in which human embryos are created by cloning, and then used for research into stem cell technologies. Some are concerned that allowing research cloning would make a ban on reproductive cloning impossible to enforce. In contrast, anti-abortion rights activists view research cloning as abortion in the name of science. Presently, a small block of nations with anti-choice leaders are threatening to derail the entire cloning convention. They would apparently prefer no ban over one that prohibits only reproductive cloning. This would be unfortunate, since it is the U.N.’s first bioethics treaty, and enjoys otherwise unanimous support.

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