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A Duty to Design Your Baby?

Posted Aug 29 2012 4:29pm

A prominent ethicist, writing in the pages of Reader’s Digest, no less, Julian Savulescu is the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at Oxford University, UK. In an upcoming edition of RD, he claims it is not only permissible, but a moral obligation, for parents to genetically design their children. After all, claims Savulescu, we wouldn’t want to trust in the “natural lottery” for our children’s characteristics. They might have cystic fibrosis or Down’s syndrome, or they may have adverse psychological profiles such as poor impulse control or a propensity towards violence.

You may say, “But that sounds an awful lot like eugenics.” Here is Dr. Savulescu’s response:

Much of the unease about designer babies comes from the work of the 20th-century eugenics movement. It tried to use selective breeding to weed out criminals, the insane and the poor, based on the false belief that such conditions were caused only by genetic disorders. It reached its inglorious climax when the Nazis moved beyond sterilization to exterminate the “genetically unfit.”

But what was especially objectionable about this movement was the coercive imposition of a state vision for a healthy population. Modern eugenics, from testing for diseases to deciding whether you want a girl or boy, is voluntary. So where genetic selection aims to bring out a trait that clearly benefits an individual and society, we should allow parents the choice. To do otherwise is to consign those who come after us to the ball and chain of our squeamishness and irrationality.

So, according to Savulescu, all of this is acceptable because it’s voluntary for parents. No one gets hurt. Of course, if we were to agree with him, we would still be exterminating the “genetically unfit:” unborn embryos tossed out with the refuse of our throwaway society. In this version of modern-day eugenics, we can now snuff out small human beings who can’t speak up for themselves.

Society is becoming increasingly comfortable with these ideas. We have forgotten the lessons of the Third Reich, and are once again concluding that some human beings are “life unworthy of life.” If Savulescu has his way, his thinking will not only be acceptable, but required.

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