Eugenics and the genetic testing of embryos and fetuses

In a recent article in the Australian media Julian Savulescu, a noted Oxford ethicist who is a visiting professor at Monash University in Melbourne, makes the contention that selecting which babies are born by doing genetic testing on embryos or fetuses and only allowing those that are desired to live to birth in the way that it is allowed in Australia shares the moral problems of past eugenics programs that we have rejected. His point is that the current practice in Australia allows selection of embryos by preimplantation genetic diagnosis and fetal testing with selective abortion only for diseases and not for sex selection or other non-disease characteristics. By allowing selection based only on diseases the society is saying that “lives with disability are less deserving of respect, or have lower moral status.” That is why we rejected the eugenics programs of the past.

Savulescu points out that “If either the embryo or the fetus has a moral status – then it would be wrong to kill either, whether or not a disability is present. If the embryo or fetus does not have a moral status, it should be permissible to destroy an embryo or abort a fetus for any reason. In this way, paradoxically, allowing testing for diseases, but not for other genes, is eugenic in objectionable ways.”

It would be easy to go from there to saying that genetic testing of embryos and fetuses for the purpose of selecting who will be allowed to be born should not be done based on the principle of the value of all human lives underlies our rejection of eugenics, but he does not go that direction. Instead he moves toward the permissibility of all embryonic and fetal testing by saying that lifting the restrictions on personal liberty imposed by limiting genetic testing of embryos and fetuses to testing for disease would resolve the moral objection that the current policy involves morally impermissible eugenics. He gets there by saying that since most people already accept the testing of embryos and fetuses for diseases, we should not say that all such selective testing is wrong based on the moral status of embryos and fetuses and the way to validate people’s acceptance of testing for diseases is to allow testing for non-disease characteristics.

Savulescu’s means of getting to his conclusion is an interesting and commonly used one to justify things that have previously been understood to be wrong. Rather than giving arguments for why we should believe that a human embryo or fetus does or does not have full moral status, he says we have already accepted a limited practice that would otherwise have been considered immoral, so we should accept a broader version of the same sort of practice. This is the process by which immoral behavior takes over a society, and also the process by which an individual falls into immorality. First justify a very limited violation of morality, and then once that is accepted use that to justify further immorality.
That is why we need to stand firm on basic moral values such as the dignity and value of every human life. Defending the moral status of the weakest and most defenseless human beings is essential to avoid the acceptance of things like aborting fetuses because they are female that currently seem obviously wrong, but may become accepted by a gradual breakdown of moral values.

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John Kilner
John Kilner
8 years ago

The slippery slope argument is often dismissed as merely theoretical or simply an exaggeration. But you have highlighted a concrete example of it which is in the midst of unfolding today, and helpfully explained how the logic of it works.

Andrew B
7 years ago

We can’t stop the development of technology; however, we can enhance educations on moral standards among the public. The problem we face right now is that we can’t respond fast enough and properly to the fast-growing technology. We need to teach our peers and the next generation how important it is for us to be observers in the nature, not the creators. You can say I am relatively conservative. I do believe in playing our roles as human being well. We should not try to play God, but to do our best to ameliorate the world around us.