The term eugenics was coined by Sir Francis Galton in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty (1883). The term is taken from two Greek words: eu, which is the Greek word for the adverb “well,” and gen, which has its roots in the verb gignesthai, meaning “to become.” Galton described with this word the program of improving the human stock by giving the “more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”
It was the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) who first developed the idea, which Galton later labeled eugenics. Plato wrote about improving the human stock. He took this idea directly from the successes of animal breeders, especially breeders of hounds and noble poultry. Already in his times, they increased desirable features in livestock by selectively mating only those specimens with the desired trait. In his classical work Republic (Book V), Plato proposed measures enforced by the state to foster the procreation of the “best” and to prevent the “worst” becoming parents. Thereby, he did not hesitate to recommend that the philosophical kings, as the leaders of the state, should use lies and deception to convince the people in following their proposals.
Eugenicists at the beginning of the 20th century, following Galton’s terminology, used the term “positive eugenics” for the idea of fostering the procreation of the “best” by measures of the state and “negative eugenics” for the idea of preventing the “worst” becoming parents.
Toward Realization and the Discreditation of the Idea
In 1900, three scientists, Correns, Tschermak, and de Vries, independently rediscovered Mendel’s “laws of inheritance,” written in 1866. They recognized its implications for the study of heredity and the theory of evolution. With this rediscovery, the idea of eugenics became so powerful that a number of leading scientists all over the world started advocating eugenics. New steps were to be taken.
To identify “good” and “bad” genes, research programs were first pursued in both state-supported and private laboratories. Concerning “positive eugenics,” the United States enacted the Immigration Act of 1924, reducing the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans to the United States. Britain and Germany changed their family allowance policies in the 1930s. The true topic of the political agenda was “negative eugenics.” People with certain forms of diseases, handicaps, or criminal attitudes were sterilized by force. Laws of this kind were declared constitutional in the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Buck v. Bell. By the late 1920s, some two-dozen American states had enacted sterilization laws.
The political agenda of the German National Socialist government included a mixture of racist, ideological, and eugenic ideas. Laws discriminating against handicapped people were introduced as early as 1933. Laws discriminating against Jews were introduced in 1935, and millions of Jews were killed in the gas chambers during World War II. A similar attempt was made against Sinti and Roma. The T4 program (1939-1941 officially, afterwards unofficially) led to the killing of hundreds of thousands of people labeled “unworthy to live,” especially those who were mentally handicapped. To foster “positive eugenics” in the Nazi sense, programs like Lebensborn (“spring of life”), in which SS officers mated with selected Aryan women, were undertaken. With the end of the Nazi regime in 1945, eugenics as a term and idea was discredited.
The Reappearance and Reformulation of the Idea of Eugenics
In 1962, with the Ciba-Symposion “Man and His Future,” 27 prominent scientists reassessed the original idea of eugenics and spoke openly about improving mankind by genetic diagnosis (negative eugenics) and genetic engineering (positive eugenics). The conference was heavily criticized for its purposes. As a result, instead of fostering the idea of programs to improve mankind, the idea of eugenics was reformulated: The focus is now on the question of whether parents have the right to use genetic diagnosis and genetic engineering to avoid having children with certain genetic traits and to increase the probability of having children with preferred traits. Especially, technologies like preimplantation genetic diagnosis have the potential to fulfill some of these expectations. This is often called the question of whether liberal eugenics is allowed, and if so, to what extent. On the other hand, genetic screening of whole populations (Iceland, Estonia), together with the Human Genome Project led to a new discussion of the idea of eugenics in the classical sense.
Eugenics initiatives can be divided in two categories: classical eugenics, as a program of states or supranational institutions to improve the human gene pool, and liberal eugenics, as decisions of individuals or couples to control or improve the genetic makeup of their children. Classical and liberal eugenic initiatives can have a twofold aim: “positive eugenics,” in which the frequency of genes presumed “good” is increased, and “negative eugenics,” in which the frequency of genes presumed “bad” is diminished. Different methods are available or imaginable to reach these aims: On a macroeugenic level, “positive eugenics” could be put into practice through financial incentives for couples with “good genes,” whereas “negative eugenics” could include sterilization laws for couples with “bad genes.” Programs could also give incentives for preimplantation genetic diagnosis and prenatal diagnosis in order to prevent the presence of certain genes in the next generation. Even the method of germ line treatment is imaginable to introduce “better genes” and extirpate “bad genes.” Couples could use the same technologies for their purposes. An ethical evaluation has to take into consideration the difference between decisions of states and decisions of individuals, between different aims and different methods.
Arguments against classical eugenics revolve around the primacy of privacy: Considering the difficulty, if not to say impossibility, of a precise definition of “disease” and “good and bad genes,” every couple should have the right to decide on their own over such issues. This affirmation is correct, but at the same time misleading. We may discuss whether a certain genetically altered genotype should be considered a disease, but we have to acknowledge that there are genetic alterations that are life threatening, such as trisomy 18. However, even if we acknowledge that an alteration of genes causes a life-threatening condition like Chorea Huntington, we have to answer the question of whether a state is allowed to implement a program of “negative eugenics.” The question arises because there is an overlapping consensus not to kill a baby with this genetic trait. The reason for this consensus consists in the fact that the newborn can expect about 40 “good” years before the disease will manifest itself. Therefore, we have good reasons to be very careful with political agendas fostering eugenics both negative and positive.
On the other hand, there is a question of how far the freedom to reproduce may go. For example, if human beings who are severely mentally handicapped are not able to take responsibility for their offspring, who are very likely to have a similar mental handicap, then sterilization laws have to be considered. Also for discussion is the question of whether the state is responsible for reducing environmental mutagens to avoid harmful genetic alterations or to give incentives to procreate earlier in life to reduce the risk of children with trisomies. It is a very important point for further ethical discussion whether states have a right to enact laws obliging women to undergo certain forms of prenatal diagnosis or, in the future, preimplantation genetic diagnosis if in vitro fertilization treatment is the case. There will also be forms of gamete selection possible. Some are convinced that these possibilities raise the specter of a political eugenic agenda in which women will be passive recipients of artificially selected embryos. On the other hand, the practically worldwide prohibition of incest shows to a certain extent a common human awareness of genetic risks of relationships between close kin. This prohibition is accepted and rarely questioned.
Concerning liberal eugenics, some forms seem to be accepted in most countries. Abortion after prenatal diagnosis discovering genetic alterations is very common. Even if in some countries, like Germany, these abortions are allowed only because of the risk for the life or health of the mother, in practice, the reason for the abortion is mostly a genetic trait of the child. The huge gap between different aims of liberal eugenics from alterations of chromosomes as trisomy 18 to alterations of genetic traits causing harelip is just as ethically noteworthy as the difference between prenatal and preimplantation genetic diagnosis. This raises the question concerning the moral status of human preembryos, embryos, or fetuses. It is noteworthy: On one hand, prenatal diagnosis concerns a human being with a beating heart. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis concerns a human morula. In addition, the latter is outside the mother. On the other hand, the possibility of choosing between different human morulas (preembryos) presents an option for prospective parents to choose the morula with certain qualities. This opens a wide field for ethical reflections.
Some methods in eugenics result in the destruction of human preembryos, embryos, or fetuses. Whoever considers the moral status of human preembryos, embryos, and fetuses as in principle (right to live) equal to the moral status of born human beings is obliged to reject any destruction of human preembryos after preimplantation genetic diagnosis or any form of abortion undertaken for genetic purposes. The only exception would be made when the preimplantation genetic diagnosis shows that the pre-embryo has an alteration of chromosomes that would cause its death during pregnancy or immediately after birth (for example, trisomy 15). An obligation would also exist to reject germ line treatment insofar as the establishment of this technology needs experiments, in which preembryos and embryos would be destroyed. Whoever, instead, considers the moral status of human preembryos, embryos, or fetuses as not equal to the moral status of born human beings has a wide range of moral options depending on his or her ethical framework. In this case, the ethical consideration has to take into account that on the one hand, there is a kind of vertical escalation from “negative eugenics” by individual couples—to “positive eugenics” as a political agenda. On the other hand, there is a horizontal escalation from destroying preembryos, embryos, and fetuses for the reasons that they will not survive their first months after birth—to destructions for reasons that these human beings have certain genetic traits that are not accepted by their parents or the society (highest form of escalation). Answers to the different questions arising from these many forms of eugenics possibilities depend on an ethical framework. A utilitarian will answer them differently from someone in the tradition of Immanuel Kant, and even religions answer them differently.
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- Kevles, D. J., & Lappe, M. (1995). Eugenics. In W. T. Reich (Ed.), Encyclopedia of bioethics (Rev. ed., Vol. 2, pp. 765-777). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.
- Winnacker E. L., Rendtorff, T., Hepp H., Hofschneider, P. H., & Korff, W. (2002). Gene technology: Interventions in humans. An escalation model for the ethical evaluation (English and German 4th ed.). Munich: Utz.