Meet the New Eugenics, Same as the Old Eugenics

From the Center for Genetics and Society blog, by Gina Maranto, Biopolitical Times guest editor, March 4, 2013

The unfortunate truth is that discredited ideas never do die, they just rise again in slightly altered forms—witness eugenics. Despite the horrors perpetuated in its name, including forced sterilization and the Holocaust, the eugenic impulse is with us still. One of the forms it takes is schemes for “improving” offspring through the selection and manipulation of embryos.

In the last year or so, one neo-eugenic advocate in particular has been garnering media attention. He’s Julian Savulescu, holder of an array of titles, including an endowed chair and directorship of a center at the University of Oxford funded by the Uehiro Foundation on Ethics and Education.

Savulescu also edits the Journal of Medical Ethics, which affords him significant influence in guiding academic discourse and research in the field. The theme of the journal’s February 2013 issue is “the biomedical enhancement of moral status,” a project that would surely count as eugenic in nature.

Writing about himself in third person in his online CV, Savulescu lays claim to the vanguard of neo-eugenics, proclaiming that

For the last 10 years, through a series of publications (4 monographs, 1 special journal issue, 29 book chapters, 45 articles), Savulescu has led the debate on the ethics of genetic selection and human enhancement.

Not one to hide his light under a bushel, he goes on to tout his statistics: He grants top spot in his list of publications to a 2001 Bioethics article, “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,” adding the gloss

27 articles responding to it, 14 exclusively. Landmark article arguing selection of children is not only permissible, but morally desirable. Introduced novel concept of Procreative Beneficence (cited by 137 – high citations are uncommon in the Humanities). 5th Highest Accessed Bioethics article 2010.

Francis Galton would be proud.

Early career

A survey of Savulescu’s career reveals a consistent pattern of apologetics for reproductive technologies and genetics. In 1998, his quotations start showing up in the Australian press. That year, according to The Age in Melbourne, the Murdoch Institute at the Royal Children’s Hospital became “the first genetic research body in the world to set up an ethics unit to monitor gene-technology developments” and named Savulescu as its head.

Then in his mid-30s, Savulescu had hopscotched from his native Romania to Australia, where he studied with the controversial ethicist Peter Singer, and thence to England. After availing himself of the prestigious Sir Robert Menzies Scholarship in Medicine at the University of Oxford, he was launched back to Australia again, where he landed among a cadre of researchers in Melbourne who had in the 1970s rivaled the British team of Steptoe and Edwards in the race to achieve in vitro fertilization (IVF).

In 1973, Melbourne physician Carl Wood had mustered a team of a dozen clinicians and reproductive biologists who were so eager to achieve successful embryo transfers that they even injected human sperm and eggs into sheep to try to achieve fertilization. Upstaged by Steptoe and Edwards in 1978, Wood and the embryologist Alan Trounson (now president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine) redoubled their efforts and, in 1980, joined the elite group who produced the world’s first dozen or so IVF babies.

Over the next decade, Wood and Trounson pushed forward with their research agenda, fighting considerable opposition in Australia from feminists on one end of the political spectrum and the Catholic Church on the other. They engaged in multiple, highly publicized fights for unfettered research, sometimes with top government officials. Wood also issued claims (based on no substantive data) that IVF babies were more motivated, intelligent and sociable than “normal” children, and he became a vocal proponent of using IVF to bring about “improvements” in babies.

Moral obligations, moral requirements, moral duties

It was into this Melbourne milieu that Savulescu descended in 1998. Almost upon arrival, he joined forces with Trounson to advocate for controversial lines of research. In February 1999, for example, The Age reported:

Two leading experts in embryo research have called for Victorian laws to be reformed urgently to allow the use of cloning techniques on human embryos.The deputy director of Monash University’s Institute of Reproduction and Development, Professor Alan Trounson, and the director of the Murdoch Institute’s Ethics Unit, Associate Professor Julian Savulescu, say Victoria is falling behind world advances in embryo research, which may cost patients’ lives. Ethical concerns have stalled Victorian research in this area, but Professor Savulescu argues there is a moral obligation [italics added] to pursue lifesaving medical advances.

A few months later, Savulescu was quoted in The Age arguing in favor of granting scientists the right to use embryos from IVF clinics for research purposes, again insisting “it was “morally required” [italics added] that parents be given the opportunity to donate unused embryos for research purposes.”

Savulescu had already gone on record in the Sydney Morning Herald saying that “ethical debates on cloning need to go beyond the ‘yuk factor’. People may find the cloning of embryos a repulsive thought, but that does not make it wrong.”

The Morning Herald article continued:

He argues, in a paper to be published next year in a special edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics, that embryo cloning for medical research is not only ethically acceptable, but we have a moral duty [italics added] to carry it out. He says that to delay unnecessarily a good piece of research which will result in a life-saving drug [sic] is to be responsible for some people’s deaths. “It is to act wrongly,” says Savulescu. “While we beat our breasts about human dignity and the rights of cells of different sorts, people are dying of leukaemia and kidney disease.”

Whenever scientists and/or physicians have in hand a technology that empirical evidence has shown provides immediate and measurable relief to people suffering a particular ailment, much less prevents them from dying, there is indeed compelling justification for using that technology, assuming consent is granted. But when Savulescu made his statement regarding embryo cloning and our “moral duty to carry it out,” no such life-saving “drug” – obviously, the journalist should have written “treatment” – existed. The remedy or remedies to be provided by cloning were entirely hypothetical, and they remain so today. Thus, so too is any “moral duty.”

Eugenic legacies

Savulescu joins a long line of eugenicists who have insisted that “we” have a compelling moral reason to “improve” the race, including Nobel Prize winner Herman J. Muller, with his outlandish Voluntary Choice of Germ Plasm scheme [subscription required], and the Repository for Germinal Choice, better known as the Nobel Sperm Bank, inspired by it.

Recently, in a Reader’s Digest column titled “It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies,” Savulescu wrote, “If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring – rather than consigning them to the natural lottery – then we should.” He went on to claim a distinction between his scheme and earlier “coercive” eugenic schemes that attempted to weed out those with negative traits, arguing that

[m]odern 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.

But parental choice was also part of historical eugenics. So-called “positive” eugenics employed pro-natalist campaigns and advocated choosing marital partners on the basis of traits that would be preferred in one’s children.

Moreover, anyone who has been in an IVF clinic for any length of time knows that many couples are highly susceptible to medical suasion: choices about whether to screen embryos are often contingent upon subtle pressures from physicians and can rarely be cast as freely made. Throughout the history of IVF, technologies have been developed by researchers eager to lead the field, and then pressed upon patients.

Savulescu also employs the “end is nigh” arguments deployed by previous eugenicists, who bemoaned the “dysgenic flux” and the accumulation of genetic defects in the species. At a public talk at the Sydney Opera House in 2009, Savulescu argued that we had better “genetically enhance” humanity or face extinction. In that talk, which was a mosh of interdisciplinary error, he used Stephen Hawking as a stalking horse, citing a “Yahoo answers”question Hawking posed –“How can the human race survive the next hundred years?” – and a subsequent Guardian article in which Hawking wrote,

The long-term survival of the human race will be safe only if we spread out into space, and then to other stars. This won’t happen for at least 100 years so we have to be very careful. Perhaps, we must hope that genetic engineering will make us wise and less aggressive.

Hawking’s last sentence can hardly be read as endorsement or prediction, yet Savulescu proceeds to build on it a case for a eugenical program that would supposedly enhance the chances of our making it past 2100 by overcoming our “moral limitations.” Such limitations, including, by his reckoning, psychopathy and inability to stay married for long periods of time, are owed, Savulescu explains, to the fact that humans evolved as Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. We can overcome behavioral and emotional limitations, he says, through selection or modification of embryos and through drugs that will better fit us to the circumstances of the modern technological world.

Savulescu’s critics

Although Savulescu said he was not sanguine about the political chances for wholesale adoption of schemes such as he outlines due to the deficits of liberal democracy, he does have utter faith in the powers of genetics and pharmacology. He contends that “We now know that most psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes,” and that embryos can be tested for them.

But the genetics of psychology is by no means as cut and dried as he would have it. Philip Rosoff, in “The Myth of Genetic Enhancement” [subscription required], notes that such a “project is doomed to failure not for moral reasons but for scientific reasons, and that both opponents and proponents err in their understanding and appreciation of the complex science that is entailed.” Traits like intelligence and ailments like heart disease involve multiple genes susceptible to alteration, activation, or de-activation in response to a range of environmental factors. Moreover, Rosoff continues, there are both “epistemic and scientific fallacies…entailed by the view that many traits of importance (those that people would be interested in enhancing) are real and quantifiable in a scientifically valid and useful way.”

In spite – or perhaps because of – his highly controversial stances, Savulescu has continually been given a platform in both the public arena and the academy. Multiple critiques of his philosophical arguments have been made in peer-reviewed journals, and in a forum given at Oxford in 2008, the philosopher David Oderberg challenged his bona fides and delivered a scathing indictment of his arguments regarding “moral enhancement,” saying:

I cannot plumb the depths of stupidity of such thinking here. Suffice it to say that Savulescu bases his idea on some scraps of highly dubious empirical evidence about the use of drugs to reduce certain kinds of bad behavior as well as on the general thought that eugenics is fine if it improves global utility. To be fair, neither he nor his co-author, Ingmar Persson, thinks that “moral enhancement” is a practical possibility in any but the distant future, and they conclude—somewhat modestly, given the context—that cognitive enhancement is not desirable unless moral enhancement is practically possible, adding that research into the former must be accompanied by research into the latter.

Nevertheless, the breathtaking superficiality of such ideas, lacking any deep analysis of human nature, the essence of morality, moral psychology, the practice of virtue, or of the question of freedom and determinism, can only leave one speechless. It is a typical example of the runaway thinking that plagues contemporary bioethics, making people of good will wonder whether this lucrative but ragged sub-genre of professional philosophy even has a right to exist—at least in its present form.

Oderberg even went on to suggest that the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics should be shuttered or radically reformed to align itself more closely with the ethos of its funder, the Uehiro Foundation on Ethics and Education. The Foundation is headed by Eiji Uehiro, who also leads a Japanese quasi-religious organization, Jissen Rinri Kosei-Kai ( 実践倫理宏正会). The Foundation has funded similar practical ethics centers at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and the Carnegie Council. Oderberg characterizes the Foundation’s principles as “living in accordance with nature, passivity, non-violence, gentleness, love of family, kindness, respect, anorientation toward others,” and finds them at odds with the biotechnological interventions that Savulescu champions.

As Robert Sparrow notes in the Hastings Center Report, [subscription required] Savulescu is not alone. He is among a group of academics who wave the neo-eugenicist banner and fall prey to the same problem of inquiry that so many followers of Galton have had. Galton’s original question – much like his cousin Darwin’s – had to do with why some animals (people falling into that class) succeed and others fail. Darwin sought an intergenerational answer that would explain differences among a range of species, while Galton was concerned with generations of people (e.g., judges and sons of judges).

In the face of all indications to the contrary, Galton saw biology instead of social factors accounting for intelligence, occupation, and social standing. Galton’s followers forget the original question and ape the answer. They conveniently ignore a wealth of evidence, accruing from psychology, epigenetics, sociology, child development, anthropology, and other fields that demonstrates the critical role that environment-gene interactions and social relationships play in shaping who we become as individuals; instead, they offer up reductionist explanations of who we are able to become and why we do what we do.

Savulescu is one more in a far-too-long line of biological determinists exhibiting a failure of imagination. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

Gina Maranto is Director of Ecosystem Science and Policy and coordinator of the Environmental Science and Policy program at the University of Miami’s Leonard and Jayne Abess Center. She is the author of Quest for Perfection: The Drive to Breed Better Human Beings (1996).

The blog can be found here:

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