On 29 September this year the People Against Eugenics (PAE) gathered outside the Royal Society (RS), a respected scientific academy in central London, to oppose a conference on its premises. PAE declared that, 'This conference is part of a deliberate strategy to advance a eugenic agenda.'
The RS was quick to distance itself from the conference - stating that it had been arranged by 'external organisers'. The RS had no involvement in 'arranging the presentations at the conference, or in inviting participants, or in producing literature associated with it.' The RS did not have the details of the conference contents until 28 September, at which point they sought legal advice about whether the presentations might breach the law, and were assured that all could legally go ahead. The four talks of particular concern were:
- Why we are morally obliged to genetically enhance our children (Julian Savulescu)
- Gay science: choosing our children's sexual orientation (Timothy Murphy)
- Preventing the existence of people with disabilities (Jeff McMahan)
- Eugenics: some lessons from the past (David Galton)
PAE insist that the RS 'should not allow a platform to argue for the elimination of disabled people and for cloning and designer babies.'
Was the RS wrong to allow a platform for discussion of such issues? Whilst I agree with the principle of freedom of speech, I also think there may be some things that are better left unspoken. PAE rightly pointed out that, 'a small but influential network of established scientists, bioethicists, and authors has been working to convince people that reproductive cloning and inheritable genetic modification should not be banned.' The speakers at the conference read like a 'who's who' of current bioethics (see box). These men and women are shaping the way medicine is and will be practised: yet most of them have never practised medicine and are not representative of society's views. They are the 'elite' and their ideas will filter down into society; in 20-50 years time their discussions over previously taboo subjects (such as infanticide) may well be commonly accepted.
- John Harris - Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester. A member of the Human Genetics Commission and the BMA ethics committee, and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics.
- Len Doyal - Professor of Medical Ethics at Queen Mary's School of Medicine in London and author of Goodbye Dolly: the ethics of human cloning.
- Julian Savulescu - Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, author of Procreative Beneficence: why we should select the best children.
- Richard Holloway - Professor of Theology at Gresham College
Something old, something new
I was interested to note that the lecture Eugenics: some lessons from the past, was given by a Professor David Galton. Although he shares a name with Francis Galton - the founding father of modern eugenics - they are not actually related. Francis Galton was the cousin of Charles Darwin. He studied the inheritance of traits within the human population. His interest particularly leant towards such qualities as 'genius' and 'talent'. He reasoned that these qualities could be calculated, managed and sharpened into a 'highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages serving several consecutive generations'. His 1883 book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Development created a new term for this discipline - eugenics - literally meaning 'well-born'. Galton's eugenics focussed primarily on 'positive' methods - encouraging breeding among the best people rather than forcibly preventing the 'weak' from reproducing. He hoped to create a regulated marriage process to pair off carefully selected members of the finest families.
The extremes to which eugenic theories were acted out under Hitler's Third Reich are well known. Modern eugenicists argue strongly that today it is very different; that we will never sink to those depths because we are a different society; that the Nazi regime was an anomaly rather than something that could ever be re-enacted; that we can learn from the lessons of the past and not make the same mistakes.
The gradual process by which eugenic theory made the jump from Galton to Hitler is an interesting one, and well documented in War Against the Weak. The development took place primarily in the academic and political institutions of England, Germany and the United States. There was enthusiastic correspondence between America's eugenic 'hero' Charles Davenport and the German eugenicists, with Davenport watching enviously during the late 1930s as Hitler enacted the euthanasia programme that would eventually eliminate some 200,000 mentally or physically disabled people considered 'life unworthy of life'. Within the US, less extreme eugenic laws were adopted in some states. These included forced sterilisation or segregation of those deemed 'unfit'. Grounds for unfitness varied from the weakly defined 'feeble-mindedness' to short-sightedness. Shockingly, some states still practiced forced sterilisation until well into the 70s, despite their indictment of German eugenic practices at the Nuremberg trials in 1945-49, where Nazi leaders were tried for their crimes.
How far could eugenics be taken today? Practically, we now have much more sanitised methods at our disposal, which are far less disturbing to our senses than methods employed in previous generations: genetic and technological developments enable us to eradicate 'unfitness' in the earliest stages of life. We also emphasise autonomy and the individual's choice over whether to utilise technology and avoid having a handicapped child. Where eugenics was once fuelled by pseudo-science and bigotry, it now has evidence-based knowledge and 'reproductive rights' on its side. But how long does the 'right' to choose remain? When does a society that follows a eugenic ideal decide that parents have a duty to make the 'right' choice?
Though we may well not fall into the trap of previous generations, we are foolish and naïve to believe that we are immune to the same mistakes. Many Germans never expected the extremes of the Third Reich when they accepted the initial euthanasia programmes. These are things most people don't expect, or they would never agree at the beginning. I believe the same mistakes could be made again, albeit in a different guise. In a society without God, personhood (and therefore value) is defined on the basis of functionality, which leaves no reason to respect the innate worth of every human being. The world is becoming a less welcoming place for the weak, vulnerable and disabled.[8,9]
Eugenics or common sense?
- The Groningen Academic hospital in Holland has admitted that four disabled babies were killed there by euthanasia in 2003. (Guardian 2004; 1 December)
- The Human Fertilitisation and Embryology Authority has granted a licence to a London clinic to screen embryos for Familial Adenomatous Polyposis, a late-onset inherited form of bowel cancer. (Times 2004; 2 November)
- A total of 2,631 babies with Down's Syndrome were aborted in England and Wales 1995 - 2002, an average of 329 a year. (Abortion Statistics - Office of National Statistics, Department of Health)
- Sir John Sulston, vice chairman of the Human Genetics Commission, recently stated, 'I don't think one ought to bring a clearly disabled child into the world'. (Times 2004; 31 October)