Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

New genetics functions as eugenics

National Post (Canada), 10 October, 2002.
This address was delivered at the McGill University conference on Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy.

Reproduced with permission

Margaret Somerville *

In the past, respect for life required respect for the life of each individual and respect for human life in general. This basic obligation continues, but the new technoscience is raising unprecedented challenges even to it. And what does respect for life require in relation to its transmission and essence, the human germ cell line -- the genes passed from generation to generation? In our secular, pluralistic society we cannot, as we did traditionally, use a shared religion to uphold respect for life in the public square. But this value remains essential to the protection of both individuals and society and must be implemented at both levels.

We have adopted intense individualism. In relation to decision-making about reproduction, intense individualism leads to claims of rights to "absolute reproductive freedom," that is, claims that decisions about reproduction are no one else's business -- especially not the state's business to interfere with through law -- and one should be absolutely free to reproduce in whatever way and reproduce whatever kind of child one wishes. That is an adult-centred reproductive decision-making model. But should the decision-making be, rather, future child-centred, especially when there is a conflict between what is best for the future parents and for the future child?

For instance, if, as may become possible, adults want to clone themselves or have a child made from two ova or two sperm, should their interests in doing so prevail over a child's right not to be created in such ways? Is it wrong to transmit human life other than by sexual reproduction? What does respect for the transmission of human life require of us?

Likewise, at the other end of life, intense individualism supports the argument that how one dies is simply a private matter in which no one else -- again, especially not the state -- should interfere, and, therefore, people must be free to choose euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

But how each of us dies also matters to society and societal values, especially that of respect for life. Moreover, euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide necessarily involves society's compliance and physicians' participation. It cannot be just a private matter.

One effect of intense individualism in the context of reprogenetics is that the accumulation of individual decisions are resulting in an overall outcome that would never be acceptable as public policy. In short, the new genetics is functioning as eugenics, but that fact is not identified. Decisions by individuals based on preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) of IVF embryos, or prenatal screening of fetuses, mean we will eliminate certain groups of people, for example, Down's syndrome children, from our society. In short, an outcome that would never be acceptable as public policy is being implemented through the accumulation of individual choices.

It is argued, in rebuttal, that individual choice regarding the nature of one's child is not a eugenic decision, that eugenics is only practised when a choice is made in relation to a group or class or by someone who is not the future parent. But is that just sophistry?

And apart from concerns about the ethics of eliminating any individual embryo or fetus, does screening to eliminate Down's syndrome children threaten our respect for human life as a society, even though we justify each decision as being only the choice of an individual who has the right to make this choice?

And which other groups might be eliminated? Would they include, for instance, achondroplastic (dwarf) children, or profoundly deaf or manic depressive ones? That would also be to eliminate two special cultures and many of our most creative people.

And, likewise, would legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide threaten our respect for life as a society, even though we justify each decision as being only the choice of an individual who has the right to make this choice?

It merits noting that the unprecedented new challenges to respect for human life we are facing are being played out in relation to the youngest and, often, the oldest members of our community -- genetics for the very young, euthanasia for the very old. Perhaps that is no accident, because we often test our principles, values, attitudes and beliefs at the margins, and here we are doing so at the two margins of life. We should remember, however, that the ethical tone of a society is set by how it treats its weakest, most in need, most vulnerable members, not those who are powerful, able and can protect themselves.

What ethical tone will we hand on to our near and far-distant descendants, especially regarding respect for human life? Our responses to the ethical issues raised by reprogenetics and euthanasia will play a major role in deciding that.