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Eugenics warning

by Alexandra Minna SternIssues in Science and Technology
December 20th, 2016

A black and white illustration of moral compass, with directions of

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In "The History of Eugenics" (Issues, Spring 2016), Daniel J. Kevles rightly reminds us that many biotechnologies initially viewed as Frankensteinian, such as in vitro fertilization, eventually become commonplace. Whether or not CRISPR/ Cas9 will follow an analogous path of routinization remains to be seen, and will depend on complex issues of cost, feasibility, safety, accessibility, and social acceptability. To date, the ethical brakes on human germline modification have slowed but not stopped the process. Much like the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, CRISPR/Cas9 has sparked a strong current of optimism about the promise of genomics to ameliorate and possibly eliminate certain diseases. But what are the potential ugly undersides of such advances?

The eugenic past can be a useful compass when considering present and future uses of genetic technologies. The lessons are clear-cut when it comes to the overreach of governments, including the implementation of policies that compelled individuals to relinquish their reproductive autonomy. Compulsory sterilization laws, which were passed in 32 states from 1907 to 1937, and resulted in more than 60,000 reproductive surgeries, overwhelmingly performed on poor, undereducated, and minority women and men, epitomize this egregious facet of eugenics.

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