Modern Day Eugenics

Throughout all of my training as a geneticist, I’ve never been taught about the original Eugenics Movement. What is Eugenics and why does it sound so familiar? The definition that I’ve found that best describes Eugenics is by Edward Larson in his book, Sex, Race, and Science:  “Eugenics is that science which studies the inborn qualities-physical, mental and spiritual-in men, with a view to their improvement. . . .but it is clear that in man the methods of mate selection, and of reproducing the best and forbidding reproduction by the most inferior.” Eugenics is essentially the controlled breeding of the human population to increase the presence of “desirable” traits.

Upon first thought, many people may associate Eugenics with the Nazi movement during World War 2. Few realize that Eugenics played a huge role in the United States, much before Nazi Germany. The American Eugenics Society was formed in 1922 and many states passed laws that resulted in isolating those that were considered weak-minded, diseased, or criminal from society and placing them into institutions. This American approach actually became a model for most other countries.

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Image credit: Cameron Adams via Flickr

Even with the history and negative connotation associated with Eugenics, the concept of shaping our species’ genetics still fascinates many scientists today. With the constant advancement of reproductive and genetic technologies, we are beginning to acquire the ability to directly, and perhaps permanently, shape our evolutionary destiny by selecting what genes continue to persist in our gene pool. There is an argument to be made in favor of the ability to permanently cure genetic disease in future generations by removing the mutated genes associated with disease or other health conditions.

Society hails prenatal screening, screening your child in the womb to make sure there are no developmental problems, but even this has its own ethical considerations. Parents must make tough decisions if their fetus is found to have a life-altering genetic disorder. The ability to select embryos for implantation in in vitro fertilization, or IVF, treatments based on their genetic profile brings its own range of ethical questions— what if the embryo has a medical condition that can be effectively managed by medical intervention? What distinguishes a true genetic “disease” from other unwanted genetic characteristics, such as height or nearsightedness? What about selecting for traits, like sex or eye color? IVF may become a consumer based process with wealthy parents able to afford expensive technology enabling them to choose “better” embryos.

Unequal access to genetic enhancement and gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR,  could eventually lead to classism, with the wealthy being able to create stronger, faster or smarter children. The 2015 UNESCO International Bioethics Committee called for a voluntary suspension of human genome editing in the feat that hereditary modifications could be passed onto future generations. In addition, the 2015 International Summit on Human Gene Editing had more than 150 scientists called for a global ban on the practice of human genome editing, claiming it could “irrevocably alter the human species” and lead to a human existence where discrimination is “inscribed onto the human genome.”

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Image credit: Christopher Dombres via Flickr

There are those that would argue that genetic engineering humans is unnatural and goes against the basic laws of nature, evolution and natural selection. One of my favorite quotes in the genetic enhancement debate comes from Michael J. Sandel, author of The Case Against Perfection: “Bioengineering our children to provide them a competitive edge, such as providing them with enhanced intelligence, is an attempt to change the nature of children to fit into the world instead of making the world a place where gifts and limitations of imperfect human beings are welcome.” Do we need every human in our species to be their parents’ or society’s views of “perfect” when they don’t even have a say?

On the other hand, those in favor of this genetic enhancement  believe that it aims to fairly allocate the burdens and benefits of changes to the foundational genetic code of an embryo. Genetic engineering relieves the burden on the “weak” and “sick” genes by deleting and/or fixing them with the goal of improving the general population to the highest genetic level possible. With the general population at their highest genetic level possible, society as a whole could reach its highest potential.

As scientists move closer to making the possibilities of human genetic engineering a reality, society must participate in an open debate on the subject. There needs to be dialogue between scientists and the public about their potential uses and ramifications of gene editing. We have always been told to learn from our past mistakes. We must recognize the similarities between then and now and be engaged to prevent history from repeating itself.

Featured image credit: Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921 via Wikimedia Commons

Kush Bhatia is a PhD student in the Department of Genetics at the University of Georgia. In his spare time, he loves reading, drinking coffee, cooking, and gaming of all kinds. He also enjoys working with some high school STEM student organizations, such as the Technology Student Association. More from Kush Bhatia.