W. Malcolm Byrnes, Human Genetic Technology, Eugenics, and Social Justice

Issues in Law & Medicine, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

W. Malcolm Byrnes, Human Genetic Technology, Eugenics, and Social Justice


1 NAT'L CATH. BIOETHICS Q. 555 (2001).

What the history of modern eugenics makes perfectly clear is that eugenic thinking has had and continues to have a significant impact on society: on the attitudes we have and the decisions we make. In this article the author argues that eugenic thinking informs the reproductive choices parents and doctors make in the genetic counseling setting. Next he argues that germline engineering is actively eugenic. Finally, he argues that the eugenic mind set arises from a reductionist, genetic deterministic view of nature.

David S. King and others have argued that a new kind of "laissez-faire" or "back door" eugenics is emerging in society In this kind of eugenics, market forces drive normally free reproductive decisions that have eugenic outcomes. Eugenic decisions are made freely by individuals, albeit with considerable pressure from society to make the "right" decision.

Eugenics is all about controlling who is born so that the "best" genetic traits are passed on to future generations. But who decides what are the best traits? In coercive eugenics, it is the state who decides; in laissez-faire eugenics, it is the parents, genetic counselors and doctors. Putting aside for the moment the ethical issues associated with decisions about who shall be allowed to live and who shall not, there is the question of whether parents who make decisions to abort a fetus or destroy an embryo on the basis of a genetic test result really are making a free choice. Many convincingly argue that the opinions of genetic counselors, obstetricians and society profoundly skew the decisions parents make against disability or any "abnormality."

It is this belief in reductionism, which postulates that an object can be understood by analyzing the sum total of its components, that is behind the genetic deterministic notion that genes determine our behavior and are the carriers of our destiny According to reductionism, "as soon as one has completed the inventory of these components and has determined the function of each of them, it should be an easy task to explain also everything observed at the higher levels of organization." The problem with this belief, says biologist Ernst Mayr, is that "[l]iving organisms form a hierarchy of ever more complex systems, from molecules, cells and tissues through the whole organism, populations and species. In each higher system, characteristics emerge that could not have been predicted from knowledge of the components." Thus, reductionism is inadequate to explain living systems.

A competing paradigm for the understanding of living organisms is organicism, which holds that "[every] system, every integron loses some of its characteristics when taken apart, and many of the important interactions of the components of an organism do not occur at the physiological level but at a higher level of integration. …

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