We will undermine the principle of equality'

May 17, 2002

Will it deliver designer babies to the wealthy or eradicate disease among the poor? Stephen Phillips ponders biotechnology's potential to shape our future, Francis Fukuyama (below, left) urges restraint and Gregory Stock (below, right) anticipates a brave new world.

The governor of the State of Virginia recently issued an apology to victims of the state's former eugenics law, which had resulted in the forcible sterilisation of hundreds of people deemed to have low IQs. Britain, Sweden and a host of other industrialised nations had similar laws on their books in the early 20th century, with the practice ending only when the world saw to what horrifying extremes it was pursued by the Nazis.

Many people would argue that what was wrong with this old-style eugenics was that it was coercive and state-sponsored and that the new type of eugenics emerging from biotechnology should not be tainted with the same stigma. In the future, there will be individual parents who will be making eugenic choices for their children, and since parents are presumed to want only the best for their children, there is nothing to worry about. Many of a more libertarian bent would subsume such choices into the broader category of individual autonomy, something we seek to protect in liberal, market-oriented societies.

I believe that it is wrong to see the genetic engineering of one's children as just another individual choice. Although there are encouraging and important therapeutic uses for this technology for those with genetically linked diseases, and although research on stem cells will play a vital role in regenerative medicine, the unlimited exercise of genetic technology by individuals is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, the interest that parents have in their children's wellbeing cannot be taken for granted - that is why there are laws against child abuse, neglect and incest. A deaf lesbian couple in the US recently sought to implant an embryo to produce a child who they hoped would also be deaf. Children do not ask to be born, of course, but it is stretching the imagination to automatically assume the informed consent of a child to be born deaf, or a clone, or genetically redesigned in a risky experiment.

The fact that what parents may do in pursuit of self-interest may not correspond to the interests of their children constitutes what economists label a negative externality - that is, it harms third parties to a transaction. As such, it is part of a larger class of externalities in which individually rational decisions end up hurting society as a whole.

Even the most orthodox free-market economist would see this as legitimate grounds for government intervention. In China, South Korea, India and other parts of Asia, for example, cultural preferences for boys coupled with cheap sonograms and abortion have led to a surplus of boys of up to 20 per cent. There is no better formula for social instability than to have one-fifth of a society's young male population unable to find mates, for it is they who usually account for the lion's share of crime and general mayhem.

Those who advocate unlimited genetic choice want the freedom to improve their children. But do they, or we, really know what this means? Would a child be "improved" if his parents were able to eliminate any genetic propensity towards gayness? Would boys be better human beings if they were born with less of a propensity for competition and aggression? The possibilities for politically correct, or incorrect, parental choices are endless. Parents, of course, try to improve their children in all sorts of ways today, through education, resources and upbringing. But the genetic stamp is indelible and would be handed down not just to one's children but to all of one's subsequent descendants.

The final issue is the most profound and has to do with rights in modern liberal democracies. We assign human rights to members of our species based on the possession of certain characteristics, such as language, reason and consciousness. A chimpanzee's genome may overlap that of a human being by more than 97 per cent, but because of the critical 3 per cent that is different we would never think to allow chimps to vote. Indeed, we can generally cook, eat, skin, enslave and experiment on creatures outside of that charmed circle, but we are guilty of "crimes against humanity" if we do the same thing to a human being.

Most of the political controversies in the development of modern democracy over the past few hundred years have revolved around who is a full human being entitled to equal rights, and whether women, blacks, the poor, the disabled and other groups qualify. One of the great achievements of 20th-century politics was the debunking of "scientific racism" and other theories spun from Darwinism that purported to show that there was a genetic hierarchy justifying the world's social and political stratifications. What is finally problematic about genetic technology is not that it will somewhat exacerbate existing social inequalities by allowing wealthy parents to "enhance" their children. The problem is that, with the emergence of separate classes of enhanced and unenhanced human beings, we will undermine the principle of equality that is grounded in the empirical fact that we are a relatively homogeneous species with a shared human nature. If people in democratic societies choose to go down this road, they should do so with open eyes.

This future is not, as some would assert, inevitable. While it is not possible to stop or limit the expansion of scientific knowledge, there are many precedents for societies shaping the course of technological development based on that science. Today we accept a slower pace of advance in biomedical research out of ethical concerns for the human subjects of that research. The issue in the end is not one of opposing science but of ensuring that science serves human ends.

Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University and author of Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (Profile Books), £17.99.

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