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Report Review: Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction

9 September 2013
By Dr Anna Smajdor
Lecturer and researcher in biomedical ethics, University of East Anglia
Appeared in BioNews 721

Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction

By Professor Stephen Wilkinson and Dr Eve Garrard

Published by Keele University

ISBN-10: 0957616007, ISBN-13: 978-0957616004

Download this report for free (.pdf 909KB)

'Future Human Evolution: Eugenics in the 21st Century' by Professor Stephen Wilkinson and Dr Eve Garrard (.pdf 909KB)

In the era of reproductive technology, the prospect of eugenics has re-emerged in multiple new guises, variously presenting itself as a valuable weapon against the ruthlessness of nature, or as a vicious tool for the advancement of corrupt ideologies. The polarising power of this concept is part of its fascination, but this is not necessarily fruitful for debate or policy-making. In their booklet, 'Eugenics and the Ethics of Selective Reproduction', Stephen Wilkinson and Eve Garrard address this problem. Firstly, they seek to clarify what is meant by the term eugenics, and secondly, whether eugenic practices are inevitably immoral. The third and fourth sections deal with selective reproduction: the selection of disabled children, and sex selection. The authors apply the reasoning developed in the first two sections in an attempt to show that the ethical acceptability of these practices cannot be ascertained solely by demonstrating that they are (or are not) eugenic.

The first essay, on the language of eugenics, addresses the problems associated with defining the term. The authors are surely right to observe that productive debate is hindered if the parties involved have different understandings of the eugenics. Yet worrying about the quality of 'debate' is perhaps a rather rarified concern. However, the authors suggest that this is not just an academic issue, since misguided beliefs about eugenics may be responsible for 'holding back' research. For Wilkinson and Garrard, this is more than simply a matter of terminology, or philosophical pondering. Improving the debate may at the same time benefit society at large.

All research, of course, has the potential to be either harmful or beneficial. But the question of what constitutes harm or benefit is as fraught as that of what 'eugenics' really is. It seems possible that some of those who object to certain eugenic endeavours may base their ideas on the fact that the 'goods' it yields are not – to them – goods worth striving for. The authors acknowledge that there may be differences in interpretation of what constitutes benefit, but sweep forward with their argument rather than engaging fully with the complexity of this problem. This glibness is understandable here given the limited scope of the booklet, but the authors' expectation that their clarification of the terminology will solve many of these problems is perhaps over-optimistic in its failure to address deeper underlying moral differences.

This quibble aside, the authors' suggested definition of eugenics as 'the attempt to improve the human gene pool' seems to be a sensible starting point, though as they note, it leaves some scope for dispute over whether the 'attempt' has to be active/deliberate or passive/unintended. They go on to discuss the distinctions between authoritarian or coercive eugenic activities, and between eugenic activities intended to eradicate disease, or to enhance particular attributes. Their analysis of these issues is admirably lucid and concise, and provides a very useful framework for thinking about the means by which eugenic aspirations are undertaken separately from the intentions behind eugenic activities.

Garrard and Wilkinson show clearly that the eugenics is a many-faceted concept, and that it has a great deal of symbolic and emotive power. They raise an interesting question about whether the emotive aspects of the term are inherently at odds with the possibility of rational debate, concluding that in fact the provocative element can galvanise people into thinking about things in new ways. Having clarified their own use of the term eugenics, and unpicked some of the assumptions and emotive responses associated with it, Wilkinson and Garrard turn to the question of whether what is eugenic is necessarily immoral. It is fairly easy for the reader to guess their answer to this from the tone of the preceding material, and indeed, their conclusion is compelling. It would be hard for anyone to maintain a conviction that eugenics (on Wilkinson and Garrard's definition) is invariably wrong.

The subsequent sections of the booklet address particular uses of selective reproductive technology. Again, these offer a lucid, concise outline of the relevant arguments, and some interesting, if provocative, conclusions, compellingly argued. They suggest that the use of PGD for example, to select for disability, cannot usually be said to harm the child if it could not have existed without that particular condition. If we cannot say that a child is harmed by virtue of having being conceived with a disability, it is still less likely that we can say a child is harmed by being selected for his/her sex; given this, it is not surprising that the authors also argue that sex selection is acceptable – in the UK at any rate.

Not all readers are likely to agree with Wilkinson and Garrard's conclusions. But the strength of this set of essays is that the delineation of the issues is so scalpel-sharp that some readers may find for the first time that they can clearly identify exactly where their objections are located in the logical structure of the arguments.

If it is fair to speak of a weakness in so short a booklet, perhaps it would be that the strident anti-eugenics position that Wilkinson and Garrard so convincingly refute seems to have a faint whiff of straw about it. There are many ignorant, unthinking users of eugenics rhetoric and these can easily be vanquished. There are richer, more nuanced objections to eugenics that might be harder to defeat, but this is not the task that Wilkinson and Garrard have set for themselves.

27 April 2015 - by Dr Ross Cloney 
The image of eugenics often portrayed in the media is reminiscent of the horrors of the early to middle 20th century. Legions of identical blond-haired, blue-eyed ubermenschen, backed by an authoritarian state with no room for diversity or difference. In 'From Bench to Bedside, to Track and Field: the context of enhancement and its ethical relevance', Silvia Camporesi demolishes that image...
8 December 2014 - by Professor John Galloway 
Although the word was not actually used (or at least I did not hear it), this was a polemic making the case for 'eugenics'...
13 January 2014 - by George Dickson 
As the weather turned cold in December, the topics heated up at the Norwich Medical School for the Student Ethics Conference that focused on reproductive ethics and law...
14 October 2013 - by Dr James Heather 
We had almost made it through the speakers when it happened, just before the break. It was the last speaker who did it. It was Dr Joyce Harper who said what I'd been waiting for, and dropped the Gattaca bomb...
5 August 2013 - by Marco Narajos 
Fertility and Reproduction is extremely up-to-date on current issues, discussing saviour sibling treatment, eugenics as well as mitochondrial replacement, all of which have been extremely topical in bioethics...
8 July 2013 - by Matthew Young 
A report produced by bioethicists from Keele University has concluded that there is no justifiable basis on which to ban IVF sex selection in the UK....
3 September 2012 - by Suzanne Elvidge 
While it's not designed to be something that is read from cover to cover, this textbook is clearly and well written, readable and accessible, with regular call-out boxes providing examples and case studies...
2 July 2012 - by Dr Iain Brassington 
Back in my bar-tending days, we had as regular customers a small group of men who would spend the evening huddled around a table talking at volume about current affairs. We used to eavesdrop on their conversations: it was hard not to. For the most part, what they tended to say was robustly weird, with essays into the profoundly bizarre. Reading John Glad's 'Future Human Evolution', I couldn't help but think of them...
8 May 2012 - by Sarah Norcross and Sandy Starr 
The conference 'Genomics in Society: Facts, Fictions and Cultures' marked the 10th anniversary of the Economic and Social Research Council's Genomics Network, and also the passing of nearly ten years since the completion of the Human Genome Project...
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