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  • Justin Wang

The Return of Eugenics: Boon or Blight?

Source: Harry H. Laughlin

Source: unknown

It seems that we are approaching a new era of eugenics. With the advent of new gene editing technologies, coupled with parent genetic screening, it is becoming easier to see whether your child will be born with a genetic condition – and prevent their birth. However, before we can rule whether this is eugenics or not, we ought to discuss the history of eugenics. 

The term originated from Francis Galton - a cousin of Charles Darwin - and was defined as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally”. 

Indeed, early eugenics was marked by bad science. Almost anyone could be marked as having an impairment due to how vague some of the categories were, as well as complete ignorance over environmental factors that can influence trait development. To this end, countless people were involuntarily sterilized or killed because of perceived imperfection – which is why eugenics is so deeply stigmatized. 

Source: National Human Genome Research Institute, 2000.

Nowadays though, determining what should be done is harder than ever– especially because it doesn’t seem wrong at all. Genetic screening allows couples who want children to determine if their child is at risk of having a condition, and expecting parents to determine if their child-to-be will have a genetic abnormality. Genetic counselors will take this information and advise the parents on their options and the nature of the abnormality. In the future, gene editing may allow parents to select for specific traits, like the removal of a genetic disorder or a specific hair color.

Despite these apparent benefits, genetic screening, counseling, and treatment could all be considered eugenics. Doctors and counselors can avoid encouraging or forcing actions, and merely inform individuals about risk factors – but this can still lead to abortions of fetuses that have undesirable traits, couples not trying for children due to risk factors, or push for designer babies that are meant to be perfect. 

We’ve had simple answers already - gene editing of embryos is banned, and bogus arguments about sexuality or race have been dismantled. Nonetheless, these are not the problems we are facing now. It is now possible to consider many aspects of modern eugenics a boon. To this end, we must consider if it is unethical to knowingly give birth to a child with a physical or mental impairment. After all, you are purposefully inflicting someone with lifelong harm - but those children have a right to live. Additionally, by removing certain conditions like bipolar disorder, we can also be removing positive forces for societal change and development– so is eliminating them unethical? These questions have no objective truth, however; you and I may have completely different responses. 

At the end of the day, we are faced with an ethical dilemma. When it comes to these more complex issues, humanity probably won’t ever agree - after all, everyone has their own thoughts and reasoning.  We will be facing complex problems with no simple answers - but maybe one day, we’ll figure out what’s right and help improve society, without violating personal freedoms.

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