I attended a seminar on gene therapy not long ago, and while I never talked much about it at the time, something stuck in my mind as someone interested in the field: is gene therapy a soft form of eugenics? Gene therapy, as referred to by most medical researchers or ethicists would likely be construed as a good thing, a positive thing meant to heal and help a person’s suffering. Eugenics, on the other hand, is widely maligned as negative–to artificially produce or design offspring which fit certain criteria. If gene therapy *could* be construed as eugenics, and perhaps it can’t, should we care? Is there any difference between repairing or removing a disability, as opposed to preventing one genetically?
I got into an argument very similar to this.
My position was along the lines of, repairing or removing a disability (lets say, leukemia for example) is a way to alleviate suffering that is already occurring rather than “potential suffering” or perceived aesthetic flaws. In gene therapy, the individual (rather than a third party be it parent or government) is allowed the freedom and prerogative of deciding what is an intolerable flaw. This is already afforded to of-age people who perceive some physical defect. Whether real or imagined, they can traipse down to the plastic surgeon and have their nose trimmed or their boobed inflated. Yet there might be some moral impediment to the eradication of their leukemia? I obviously don’t think so.
On the other hand, under the policies and beliefs of eugenics, a higher authority was placed in charge of making the decisions which would affect the genes of individuals. This removes the autonomy of the individual, or at the very least creates conflict between the individual and the autonomy figure. It would be easy to argue that this situation in America could be perceived as equally immoral, if not more so, than gene therapy.
There also seems to be a very real ethical difference between deliberatly manipulating an embryo’s genes and *failing* to take the necessary measures to ensure that child is born free of defect. What I mean is, would it be considered wrong to, say, decline to take folic acid during pregnancy even though it has been shown to drastically reduce birth defects? Does it make a difference whether the defect that could be prevented was myopia or cystic fibrosis?
Just some things to think on….