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If Individuals Do It, It's Still Eugenics

In the past, dictatorial governments mandated eugenics, whether by the extermination of "undesirables" or imposition of a "one-child" policy. Now, biotechnology is giving couples opportunities to select favorable attributes for children, creating "designer babies." This is not "intelligent" design, since the outlook is ethically grim.

China's one-child policy has led to a preponderance of males, setting the stage for major social unrest. In other countries like India, where sons are favored, sex selection through abortion is leading to the same outcome. Genetic engineering not only allows couples to selectively abort their babies to avoid undesirable traits, but to engineer the traits they want for conception, such as intelligence. Ethicists are understandably alarmed.

European bioethicists raised the red flag Thursday over an American patent for a method that could allow people to choose genetic traits like eye colour in children sired from donor eggs or sperm. (Emphasis added.)

Thus begins an article on Medical Xpress, where in an unexpected reversal, European ethicists are worried about what America is doing. In September, the U.S. Patent Office granted a firm named 23andMe to "make more informed donor choices" from their "shopping list" of desired traits:

Characteristics on the parents' "shopping list" could include height, eye colour, muscle development, personality traits, or risk of developing certain types of cancer and other diseases, said the commentators.

This is "hugely ethically controversial," commentators say. The characteristics have nothing to do with a child's health: "At no stage during the examination of the patent application did the patent office examiner question whether techniques for facilitating the 'design' of future human babies were appropriate subject matter for a patent."

Another company in New York, named Genepeeks, is trying the same thing -- prospecting sperm donor traits to allow couples to select the child they desire. The BBC News reports:

Donors that more often produce "digital children" with a higher risk of inherited disorders will be filtered out, leaving those who are better genetic matches.

Everything happens in a computer, but experts have raised ethical questions.

The company takes a pragmatic approach. "We're very much focused on the practical utility of helping prospective parents who want to protect their future kids," a company spokesperson says. Such things often begin with noble-sounding motives.

At this point, the technology seems geared to preventing known genetic disorders, providing prospective parents the information they need to make informed choices. The same technology could, however, allow for "designer babies" engineered for desirable traits. At this time there are few regulations.

It's also unclear that genetic screening for diseases would prevent them. Genetic markers often involve predispositions, not certainties. Then there is the lack of understanding of epigenetic effects or environmental factors potentially contributing to disease. The potential for lawsuits against 23andMe or Genepeeks lurks in the background if the babies don't turn out as advertised.

What's wrong with allowing parents to choose to have a sprinter or a mathematician? Don't adoptive parents get some choice in the children they select? Don't the individuals that people marry result in consequences for the kinds of children they may bear? After marriage, is it the same kind of choice to select the traits they want? Either way, the baby had no choice of its own genes. What's the difference?

The problem is the societal consequences of trendy engineering of genes. This is very clear in the male-female imbalance in Asian countries. Whether by government force or by parental action, the consequences affect the next generation. Designing babies for personal preferences also turns human beings into commodities, like something you'd purchase in a store. And once favored traits become common, those without the traits can easily become targets of discrimination.

Nature has a disturbing news feature called "Ethics: Taboo Genetics." With full knowledge of the rancid history of eugenics, Erika Check Hayden re-opened old scars, considering the scientific value of research into the genetic basis of intelligence, race and other traits. Most of the scientists advertise humanitarian motives, like government officials who assure us "We're here to help you." Researchers sometimes overlook the downside of such research until ethicists tap them on the shoulder. "For decades, scientists have trodden carefully in certain areas of genetic study for social or political reasons," Hayden writes.

Nevertheless, she appears to excuse genetic research into "taboo" subjects on the grounds that genetics is not deterministic. She downplays past fears as public misunderstanding, putting the onus on the public instead of the scientist:

At the root of this caution is the widespread but antiquated idea that genetics is destiny -- that someone's genes can accurately predict complex behaviours and traits regardless of their environment. The public and many scientists have continued to misinterpret modern findings on the basis of this -- fearing that the work will lead to a new age of eugenics, preemptive imprisonment and discrimination against already marginalized groups.

The scientists she quotes argue that interfering with pure research distorts researchers' priorities. It can harm research into related subjects. Like the government bureaucrat, the scientist is just there to help us. Let the mule have his head; he knows the way. Just ride and whistle a tune.

Hayden surveys four areas of ethically tainted research and ranks them by "taboo level." Intelligence research is "high." Race research taboo level is "very high." Violence research is "mild." And sex research is "mild" in her estimation. In each of these discussions, particular groups stand to benefit or suffer from the research, whether the intentions are noble or not, whether the implications are sound or not.

Some scientists -- though not all -- seem to treat their job as an exercise in personal freedom. They can study whatever they want and call it "pure research." If somebody wants to misuse their findings, that's "their problem, not mine." Just be sure to keep that taxpayer money flowing. Hayden lands on their side in her conclusion with a series of loaded words, including censorship:

Such complexities are unavoidable in a democratic society in which citizens have a say on how public money is spent. Researchers must acknowledge that and take part in the broader conversation about the kinds of topics they want to pursue, Farahany says. "You hear this refrain in lots of areas of science, that because people will misuse science we shouldn't engage in scientific inquiry. I think that gets it backwards. If we're worried that people will misuse it, we need to create safeguards -- and an open public dialogue that ensures responsible use." That, rather than censoring science or ignoring its implications, is perhaps the only way that Vilain and other researchers will get their wish: to do their work in peace.

We should have learned the lessons from this damaging Victorian-era attitude in World Wars I and II. Scientists do not work in a vacuum. They are not owed personal peace while they do whatever they want. They cannot duck the ethical implications of their work: society has a stake in scientific research, especially when taxpayers fund it.

Not all research is worth doing. The Baconian ethic was to explore the world without limit. Now, we know that scientists make choices on what to research, based on their personal biases and training. Consider some absurd examples. If scientists were absolutely free to do "pure research" on everything under the sun, one of them might decide to catalog all the flopping behaviors of animals when their heads are cut off. One might try to classify all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. Another might try to correlate bumps on the head with intelligence (wait; that one is part of 19th-century science history). We understand now that research is normally undertaken with a prior goal in mind. Serendipity happens on occasion, but it usually does so when the scientist was working on something else.

The ethical consequences of pure research also vary widely. The public is very permissive of scientific freedom most of the time: a cell biologist seeking to understand the workings of a molecular machine; a field biologist surveying whether any ivory-billed woodpeckers remain; a research team at the South Pole measuring cosmic ray levels under the ozone hole. There's public value in gaining understanding of the world. That's not controversial. The public also has a stake in determining funding priorities, such as finding cures for cancer over learning how crayfish run on treadmills.

Public values cannot be divorced entirely from research priorities. The examples of pure research leading to unexpected breakthroughs for the public good can be counterbalanced by examples that led to weapons. The public has every right to consider some research off limits, or to put stringent safeguards on some categories of research. Just because genetic engineering allows partners to design the baby they want doesn't mean the U.S. Patent Office should allow it. It is not in the purview of entrepreneurs or scientists to foment the next round of eugenics. The next generation has a stake in the consequences.