Human Exceptionalism

The New Eugenics: Eventually No Babies Will Be Allowed to be Born

My partially tongue in cheek headline is in reaction to a story–yet again from Brave New Britain–of embryo screening employed to prevent a child from being born who might contract adult onset cancer–in this case, of the breast. Look how fast we have gone from using genetic selection to prevent birth defects and disease in infancy, to sex selection, to seeking to control fates in adulthood.

One can certainly understand and empathize with the desire to prevent a daughter from ever suffering breast cancer. But eventually we may be able to identify gene defects in each and every human being that increase the likelihood that he or she will eventually contract some dread disease. Not to mention, other conditions the “pain” caused by which some parents might not want their children to experience, such as propensity to obesity, diminutive stature, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, Type 1 diabetes, homosexuality, etc. etc.

If this eugenic attitude continues, we could get to the point that we permit no babies to be born at all! After all, unless we are hit by a truck early on, we will all suffer–whether from a serious illness, a disability, or, perhaps, existential angst due to an inherent biological characteristic. I was teased mercilessly as an early adolescent because I was “husky.” This was one of the most painful times of my life. Should my parents have prevented me from being born, if my propensity to gain weight is genetically based, to ensure that I would not experience the anguish of crying myself to sleep at night because my peers–worse, girls!–laughed at me? In the alternative, should I have been genetically engineered so I didn’t have the propensity to, shall we say, “expand?” I say not: The awful experience of being a chubby and non athletic boy–which at the time I would have given anything to change–ultimately proved one of the most beneficial of my life: All that pain tempered my personality and gave me the gift of empathy.

Behind all of this, particularly among the biotechnologists, is there not a certain hubris, a desire to hyper-control every aspect of human life? But this desire to control the future–rather than live it–is ultimately doomed to failure. We are all born to die. Each of us is “defective” in some manner. Each of us, whether healthy or ill, able bodied or disabled, developmentally disabled or genius–plays a vital part in the human saga. Engaging in the new eugenics of embryo quality control is dehumanizing and an explicit denial of the joy and vitality of human diversity.

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