Rethinking "Liberal Eugenics": Reflections and Questions on Habermas on Bioethics

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Eugenics, euthanasia, and selection: these are terms that, in Germany, are bound together with awful memories," the German President Johannes Rau observed in a speech in 2001. "They thus provoke--and rightly so--emotional resistance." (1) The story of how "emotional resistance" to the notion of euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants led to the "silencing" of Peter Singer while he was in Germany in 1989 is well known. (2) More recently, human embryonic stem cell research, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), and the prospect of prenatal genetic "engineering" or enhancement have provoked similarly strong reactions. (3) In the words of two German commentators, for many Germans both old and young, "the fact that almost the entire population passively tolerated the Nazis' mass crimes is taken as sufficient warning against any relativization whatsoever of the sanctity of human life." (4)

Yet there has lately arisen what one commentator called "a revolt in the intellectual world against the 'political correctness' that prevails in Germany's treatment of the Nazi past." (5) According to the dissenters, "A deeply rooted fear of a loss of societal values--a very German argument--leads to hasty and premature legal prohibitions," among which is adduced the 1990 Law for the Protection of Human Embryos. (6) President Rau speaks for those wary of biotechnological advances: "The experience that we had with National Socialism, in particular with research and science in the Third Reich, must play an important role for ethical judgment--and not only among us [Germans]." (7) The dissenters hold, by contrast, that "[t]he declining Weimar Republic and the National Socialist regime differed in many relevant regards from Germany's current democracy." (8) From this point of view, Germans have much to learn from liberal-minded Anglo-American bioethical discourse, rather than Anglo-Americans and others much to learn from Germany's history.

Such is the background to the distinguished political philosopher Jurgen Habermas's 2001 book, The Future of Human Nature: On the Way to a Liberal Eugenics? (9) This text has now been translated into English, (10) but even in translation it comes across as "very German" in its concerns and method. (11) Habermas's principal focus in this text is the moral and political significance of prenatal genetic engineering or enhancement--as futuristic as it might be--which he argues could damage the affected person's relation to her body and thus jeopardize her autonomy.

On the basis of these considerations, Habermas also argues against both the destruction of human embryos for stem cell research and PGD. According to Habermas, "the procedures of preimplantation genetic diagnosis and research on human embryonic stem cells demand the adoption of wide-working attitudes that tend to promote the transition from a negative to a positive eugenics," that is, from practices concerned with preventing the transmission of severely disabling conditions to practices aimed at optimizing a child's genetic makeup (158/96). (12) Thus, from his perspective, human embryonic stem cell research and PGD "would clear the path to a liberal eugenics," which would be distinguished from an old-style, authoritarian eugenics by a great measure of state neutrality, with parents enjoying a largely free hand in "the choice of the goals of character-modifying interventions" (122, 39/71, 19).

Habermas is known for his contributions to liberal political theory. It has been his life's work to defend and justify liberal thought. So it should come as no surprise that Habermas is no friend of an authoritarian eugenics, but it may surprise some to discover he is also no friend of a liberal eugenics. Because of the risks he sees in prenatal genetic engineering or enhancement, Habermas submits that a society is warranted in erecting "[n]ormative barriers in dealing with embryos" in order to protect its "form of life" (122/71-72). …