Since the rise of genetic knowledge, the eugenic temptation has always been with us. As Daniel Kevles notes, the desire to breed better humans goes back as far as Plato, though Plato had no conception that genetic knowledge would one day put that goal within human reach. Francis Galton’s term eugenics (literally, “good in birth”) is now a part of our cultural vocabulary, and the eugenic reality is on the front line of our cultural crisis.

The temptation to conceive human breeding in eugenic terms is powerful and, in one sense, virtually unavoidable. No thoughtful person would suggest or recommend casual disregard of genetic knowledge regarding, for example, inherited genetic disorders such as Tay-Sach’s disease. But the advent of genetic testing and the exploding knowledge of the human genotype present entirely new eugenic opportunities and ethical challenges.

The crusades of the early eugenicists were directed at limiting the reproduction of those persons or races considered “inferior” and the enhancement of the human species by the intentional breeding of those considered racially or individually “superior.” Eugenic experiments, movements, and theories were common in the early twentieth century in both Europe and the United States, and these often were presented as essentially hygienic and progressive in purpose.

Widespread knowledge of the eugenics-driven genocide of the Nazi regime pushed eugenics outside the pale of acceptable science and medicine in the western democracies–at least until the rise of the new genetic knowledge after 1953, and the identification by James Watson and Francis Crick of the molecular code of DNA. Now, the eugenic temptation is back, armed with knowledge and technologies unimagined by the Nazi doctors and their eugenic compatriots.

The Human Genome Project represents the Manhattan Project of human genetics, and will present humanity with the greatest ethical challenges of the coming century. Though this is seldom articulated or acknowledged in public, genetic testing currently available is used by some parents to decide if a developing fetus is worthy of life.

The ethical challenge of the genetic project is openly accepted by many scientists, including James Watson, who admitted that “the Nazis used leading members of the German human genetics and psychiatry communities to justify their genocide programs, first against the mentally ill and then the Jews and the Gypsies. We need no more vivid reminders that science in the wrong hands can do incalculable harm.”

Of course, Watson is convinced that his hands are “right hands” and contemporary geneticists deny any goals of racial superiority. Nevertheless, the eugenic temptations of the present are every much as ominous as those of the past, and potentially far more threatening, for knowledge denied the Nazi scientists is quickly setting the medical agenda.

As Diane B. Paul suggests, “over every contemporary discussion of eugenics falls the shadow of the Third Reich.” For this reason, some scientists argue that the contemporary issues of genetic knowledge and technique are not eugenic in character at all, for they are not linked–at least yet–to state coercion. This is a false distinction, for though the energy behind the new genetic technologies is not state coercion, it is just as focused on a hierarchical valuation of genetic quality.

The new eugenics is not driven by legal coercion, but by something more like consumer choice. Parents, putting themselves in a consumer posture, are demanding increased genetic knowledge in order to give birth to designer babies, complete with chosen eye color, gender, and anticipated dispositions toward athletics, intellectual pursuits, or other chosen qualities or attributes. Needless to say, these parents also demand that their fetus be free from identifiable genetic flaws or diseases. As John A. Robertson admits, the focus on “offspring quality” changes the very nature of human reproduction. Every pregnancy becomes “tentative” until genetic screens indicate that the fetus is acceptable. This scenario is not an anticipation of future possibilities in genetic medicine, but a realization of present realities. If the fetus is not judged to be of sufficient quality, it can be legally aborted at virtually any stage.

Robertson advocates this freedom under his proposed moral and legal principle of “procreative liberty.” As he argues, this libertarian principle can be applied to any reproductive situation, and state interference is nonexistent. Under the banner of “procreative liberty” we are free to employ any technology available in order to determine the quality of offspring desired. Those fetuses considered unfit are merely aborted without moral consequence or consideration.

Similarly, Philip Kitcher argues that having “left the garden of genetic innocence, some form of eugenics is inescapable, and our first task must be to discover where among the available options we can find the safest home.” Kitcher calls for the development of “utopian eugenics” based on the most sophisticated genetic testing, and argues for the genetic enhancement of the human species as a social responsibility.

The issue of human cloning raises the specter of eugenics to a new level. By the employment of recombinant DNA technologies, a chosen “super strain,” “super race,” or series of “superior individuals” could be designed as embryos and mass produced through asexual reproduction, thus avoiding any dilution of genetic purity by human parents. This is, in essence, the purpose for cloning the sheep. A superior line of genetically designed and enhanced species can be cloned and thus available in mass numbers of undefiled individuals.

The moral consequences are dramatic indeed. Cloning would make possible the eventual de-sexualization of the human race and would allow eugenicists to transcend the “breeding” issues of the early eugenic movements. The new eugenic vision could avoid sexual reproduction altogether and, employing much the same technologies as used to “create” transgenic animals, could modify the genetic structure of the embryo so as to customize and dictate virtually every genetic trait. Thus, the cloning of human beings would allow a dramatic and radical extension of the eugenic vision by allowing for the direct genetic customization of the embryo and the mass asexual production of identical embryos.

Such a vision brings to mind the busy hatcheries of Huxley’s Brave New World, and the antiseptic sterility of his nightmare of totalitarian control. Those who claim that the new eugenics will be free from all coercion are either hopelessly na├»ve or deliberately disingenuous. Anyone familiar with the economic dynamic behind so many supposed medical decisions will know that coercion is already a reality. Pressure is brought on many parents to abort a fetus likely to require expensive medical attention. This pressure is already a form of coercion, but is likely to be only a hint of what is to come. Social pressure–if not social policy–will reward those who allow or encourage eugenic decisions.

Even if mass coercion does not occur, we should consider whether the emergence of small-scale “consumer” eugenics presents a reduced moral challenge. The case made by those committed to “procreative liberty” and “utopian eugenics” is not convincing. In the first case, the ultimate value is not life as God’s good gift, but unfettered reproductive liberty as a designated “right.” This libertarian worldview posits the autonomous human being at the center of the moral universe, and denies any responsibility before God to accept all life as God’s good gift.

The utopian eugenicists also fail to make a convincing case. While “consumer” eugenics may be free from state coercion or open racial discrimination, it clearly aims for the birth of babies free from all unwanted or undesirable genetic traits and possessing those traits chosen as desirable. Philip Kitcher argues that as genetic counseling becomes generally available, a form of laissez-faire eugenics inevitably results. This laissez-faire eugenics is not, however, as free from discrimination and coercion as its proponents may claim.

Most fundamentally, the eugenicist vision represents the creature’s attempt to define himself and his destiny. By unlocking the genetic code, by laying naked the genome, we will become masters of our own destiny. As human beings, we will define ourselves, improve ourselves, customize ourselves, replicate ourselves, and, in the final act of hubris, redeem ourselves through our genetically enhanced and clonally produced progeny.

Tomorrow: Artificial Reproduction and the Destruction of the Family