Questions and Answers About Techno-eugenics
1. Is human genetic engineering safe and effective?
With present techniques it is clearly unsafe: the techniques of inserting genes can disrupt other genes, with harmful consequences for the person and all his/her descendants. We do not know enough about how gene work to ensure that an inserted gene will work as desired. Future generations cannot consent to such risks. The chance that interventions will be effective is unknown. However, the technologies are improving constantly and may make human genetic engineering (HGE) feasible within five years.
2. Is human genetic engineering medically necessary?
No, it is not. Advocates argue that it is a general solution to the problem of genetic diseases and is superior to somatic gene therapy, since it could permanently eliminate the risk of inherited disease within a family. However, there are only a few very rare cases where HGE is the only option for producing a healthy child. Couples can choose not to have children, to adopt a child, or to use donor eggs or sperm. If it is consistent with their values, they can also use prenatal and pre-implantation genetic testing to avoid genetic disease and have a child that is 100% genetically related. Given this, it is clear that the real market for HGE is in 'enhancement' of appearance, height, athletic ability, intelligence, etc.
3. Isn't the techno-eugenic future inevitable?
No, it is not, although Lee Silver and others like him very much want you to believe that it is. In a democratic society people agree on what rules they wish to live under. By 1998 twenty-seven industrial democracies had agreed to ban human cloning and germ line manipulation. In the U.S., the state of Michigan has made all forms of human cloning illegal. There is no reason we cannot choose to forgo these technologies, both domestically and as part of a global compact. It is often said that banning the use of a technology will not prevent someone from developing it elsewhere. This may be true, although the number of people competent to develop cloning and human genetic engineering is small. But even though the technology may be developed, we do not have to permit its use to become respectable and widespread.
4. If we oppose human genetic engineering, does that mean we're anti-science and anti-progress?
No, we have the right to choose the science that we want and to define our own vision of progress. We should reject science which is not in the public interest. Proscribing the most dangerous techno-eugenic applications will allow us to proceed with greater confidence in developing the many potentially beneficial uses of genetic research for human society.
5. Don't people have the right to genetically engineer their children if they want?
People do have the right to have children if they are biologically capable, but they do not have any 'right' to use cloning, or genetic engineering. Rights don't exist in a vacuum; they are socially negotiated within a context of fundamental values. The question of access to particular technologies is a matter of public policy and depends on the social consequences of allowing that access. For example, people are not allowed access to nuclear technology, or dangerous pathogens and drugs, simply because they have the money to pay for them.
6. What's wrong with human genetic engineering?
Traditionally, we see human beings as inviolable, and as endowed with rights: they must be accepted as they are. Human genetic engineering overthrows that basic conception, degrading human subjects into objects, to be designed according parents' whim. Accepting such a change would have consequences both for individual humans and for society at large which we can barely imagine. Obvious consequences would be a disruption of parents' unconditional love for children. Cloning and HGE represent an unprecedented intent to determine and control a child's life trajectory: for the child, it would undermine their sense of free will and of their achievements. These concerns are what many people mean when they say that we should not play God with our children.
The social consequences of the use of cloning and HGE in our society would be disastrous. Parents would tend to engineer children to conform to social norms, with regard to physical ability, appearance and aptitudes, even though many of those social norms are inherently oppressive. For example, disabled people have often expressed fears that free-market eugenics would reduce society's tolerance for those genetic impairments. If genes pre-disposing people to homosexuality are discovered, it is certain that many people would attempt to engineer these out of their offspring. A free-market techno-eugenics could also easily have the disastrous consequences spelled out in Lee Silver's Re-making Eden. Since access to such expensive technology would be on the basis of ability to pay, we could see the emergence of biologically as well as financially advantaged ruling elites.
7. Why is techno-eugenics an issue for the environmental movement?
The environmental movement has recognised how, in Western societies over the last few hundred years, humans have tried to control and dominate nature, with the resultant environmental crisis which we currently face. Genetic engineering of plants and animals gives us the power to dominate nature in a new and more powerful way than ever before, which is why it has caused so much concern in environmental movements. Techno-eugenics extends the drive to control nature to the nature of human beings, threatening ultimately to make the human species, like other species, the object of the manipulative control of technocratic elites. It is obvious that if we cannot prevent this, we have little chance of winning the struggle to protect the environment. The environmental movement is the main guardian of the non-exploitative vision of the relation between humans and the rest of nature. Realising that such a relationship may soon be imposed upon ourselves, and our children, the environmental movement must take the lead in alerting society to the danger that it faces.