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November 18th 2008 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Those Unethical Ethicists

Why is it that Australia seems to produce so many “ethicists” who would perhaps have been perfectly at home in a certain European nation about 70 years ago (beginning with ‘G’ and ending with ‘y’).

Why is it that Australia seems to produce so many “ethicists” who would perhaps have been perfectly at home in a certain European nation about 70 years ago (beginning with ‘G’ and ending with ‘y’). Why do they so often seem to be advocates for the culture of death, and so very devoid of any respect for human life?

Think of some Australian ethicists, philosophers, and biomedical experts such as Peter Singer, or Alan Trounson, or Julian Savulescu. They are all prominent medical thinkers or practitioners, and all have a Brave New World feel about them.

Consider the recent remarks of Prof Savulescu. In an article entitled “Breeding Perfect babies” he makes the case for genetic engineering and designer babies. He argues that “we have a moral obligation to select the embryo with the best chance of the best life”. He says new developments in testing for genetic disease mean anyone can now pick and choose the characteristics they want for their baby.

He explains, “The (AU$3,440) test, called karyomapping, which should be available as early as next year, will allow couples at risk of passing on gene defects to conceive healthy children using IVF treatment. The ‘genetic MoT’ will transform the range of inherited disorders that can be detected. Currently only 2% of the 15,000 known genetic conditions can be detected in this way. Not only can it test for muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, but it can be used for testing for the risk of developing heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s in later life.”

Now it is one thing to think about screening for certain genetic diseases. But Savulescu is quite happy to take all this much further. “We should want our children to begin life with best genetic start. People worry that this is a slide down a slope to creating designer babies, to testing for eye colour, height, mental and physical abilities. But we should embrace the selection of such non-disease traits, if they contribute to a child having better chance of a better life. Why wouldn’t we choose an embryo which will grow into a better ability at maths or music. Indeed, we should give our children the greatest range of gifts possible.”

This is really all about creating designer babies who are made to order for adults with selective tastes. It is indeed about playing God, and determining just who is allowed to live, and who will not be allowed to live.

Yet Savulescu simply dismisses any ethical concerns people might have about all this: “People worry that this is like the Nazis weeding out the weak and inferior. Or that it will result in a two tiered society of the genetically privileged and the genetic ally underprivileged, as in the film Gattaca. But these fears are misplaced provided we focus on testing for genes that make our children’s lives go predictably better. Nature has no mind to fairness or equality. Some people are born with horribly short genetic straws. Enabling couples to choose the best of the embryos will reduce natural inequality.”

But what he is proposing is exactly the stuff of Nazi Germany and Gattaca. It is all about the creation of a superior race, based on genetics and selective breeding. Too bad about those who won’t be able to afford all this high-biotech utopia. They will simply become the genetic underclass that Gattaca so rightly warns about.

And the fact that nature deals us all an uneven hand is no argument for genetic manipulation, selection and the creation of a perfect race. This is problematic for numerous reasons. Let me mention just a few.

A major problem is this: what do parents do with all the genetic information provided by the doctor? The truth is, many of the diseases tested for have no known cures at present. So the usual solution is that the doctor advises an abortion. Indeed, many doctors and clinics will not do genetic testing unless the couple gives prior consent to having an abortion.

But as ethicist Anthony Fisher reminds us, scientists should focus on curing such diseases rather than eliminating people with the condition. Genetic screening can easily lead to selective breeding and selective abortion. It can easily lead us to a return to eugenics

Genetic reductionism

But there may be even greater problems to worry about here. It seems that the very notions of human rights and human dignity come under threat here. The new genetics is in many ways related to the reductionism of the human person. That is, the more we come to know about the human genome, the more we are tempted to explain everything in terms of genetics. While we certainly can be understood in part by our genetic makeup, we are more than the sum of our genes. Bioethicist Leon Kass puts it this way:

“One of the most worrisome but least appreciated aspects of the godlike power of the new genetics is its tendency to ‘redefine’ a human being in terms of his genes. Once a person is decisively characterized by his genotype, it is but a short step to justifying death solely for genetic sins.”

Not only is this whole process dehumanising, but it means that certain technocrats will be making decisions which will have huge moral and social ramifications. As C.S. Lewis warned with great prescience years ago in The Abolition of Man: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

He went on to say, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

No one denies that nature deals us a bad hand at times, and there certainly is a place for taking steps to correct some of this. People born short-sighted obviously can make use of corrective prescription glasses. And there may well be a place for genetic testing for certain diseases and defects.

But the whole enterprise is fraught with danger, and the desire to move on to designer babies, complete with improved musical and mathematical abilities – as Savulescu desires – is surely putting us on the wrong road. Indeed, we have travelled down that road before, and it has not been a pretty sight.

The path to a coercive utopia is often paved with good intentions. We all want to live longer and healthier lives. But as Leon Kass reminds us, “It is not just survival, but survival of what that matters. . . . [S]imply to covet a prolonged life span for ourselves is both a sign and a cause of our failure to open ourselves to this – or any other – purpose. It is probably no accident that it is a generation whose intelligentsia proclaim the meaninglessness of life that embarks on its indefinite prolongation and that seeks to cure the emptiness of life by extending it.”

Quite so. As we increasingly lose our understanding of what it is to be human, and what is really important in life, we increasingly look to play God, either to extend our own physical lives, or that of our offspring. But there are right ways and wrong ways of doing this. Denying God, and/or seeking to take his place is not the right way to proceed.