Author: Fr. Jean Kitahara-Frisch, SJ
The increasingly common practice of prenatal and preimplantation genetic diagnosis risks fostering in society a eugenic type of mentality. While a distinction must be made between compulsory, state organized, eugenics and freely made reproductive choices, one cannot ignore the impact of private choices on society as a whole. Examining the historical, scientific and social roots of eugenics in the recent past may help bioethicians to devise steps preventing assisted reproduction technologies from sliding into uncontrolled eugenic practices. Eugenics has long had a bad reputation, due chiefly to the horrifying and humanly degrading experiments performed in its name by the Nazi regime. However, it has recently often been pointed out that eugenics as a policy enforced by the State ought to be sharply distinguished from private decisions freely taken by individual couples aiming at optimizing the quality of life of their children. Some may even claim that this second kind of eugenical practice should be regarded as one aspect of the “reproductive rights” that were vigorously defended at the 1994 United Nations sponsored Cairo Conference on Population Problems. It is therefore opportune, necessary even, to reexamine first more closely the origins and social background of eugenics and to make certain, from the bioethics viewpoint, how basic the difference is between eugenics as a State policy and freely individually practiced eugenics. Nazism provided an abhorrent example of the first kind of eugenics. But why, it may be asked, could not one recognize as legitimate, and even beneficial, the possibility for parents to bring forth healthier children, provided with some of the qualities they themselves highly value? It is here argued that this second kind of eugenics, called by some utopian eugenics (Kitcher, 1996) or privatized eugenics (Appleyard, 1998) is in fact already widely practiced, by making use of assisted reproduction technology as helped by preimplantation genetic analysis of embryos and the steadily more accurate knowledge of the genetic basis of human diseases as well as of other characteristics of the expected offspring. It is further argued that such practices, by the eugenic mentality they foster, constitute a grave threat to future human society and that steps should therefore be taken to make sure that recent reproductive technologies do not promote a type of eugenics that would offend the dignity of human life.