Academic journal article New Formations

Eugenics and Genetics: The Conjoint Twins?

Academic journal article New Formations

Eugenics and Genetics: The Conjoint Twins?

Article excerpt

Thinking about human genetics, not least the vaunted possibility of the 'perfect baby', seems, in the post millennium world, to be both near and light years away from the spectre of eugenics which haunted the twentieth century, above all in the hideous episode of Nazism. This new science fiction in which intending parents get to choose the eye colour, height, intelligence and looks of their prospective child is part of a new consumer culture without limits. If you want it, can pay for it, and someone can provide it, then it, whatever that 'it' is, is yours. A revitalised economic liberalism enthrones the consumer as king--or even queen. Of course we all know that accompanying this claimed new technological possibility there will be some moral questioning around the desirability of letting the market into parenthood, but with so many of the bio-ethicists weakened by their subscription to the thesis of the importance of the market as the chief arbiter of our futures and by their own positioning within biotechnology as consultants and advisers, they are unlikely to cut much ice. None the less, while tasteless, absurd, even impossible, the dream of the perfect baby takes its place alongside other consumer fantasies, of the perfect house, suit, job, garden or partner. Perhaps such unrealisable fantasies cast light on the current pandemic levels of depression in western societies.

Ten years ago the ideological and technological epicentre of this unrestrained consumerism was the US, and even writing from within the fifty-first state, it is important neither to dismiss or undermine the institutional structures of social solidarity still evident in most Western European countries. Though weakened these still serve as a constraint both against the marketisation of every day life and also the human body itself. Europe has yet to see, not least because most countries have regulated against the possibility, the kind of advertisement seen on the elite US campuses which invited 175cm tall women Ivy League graduates with high SAT scores to sell their gametes for $50,000. (The implication that attendance at an Ivy League university comes in with the gametes owes rather little to any part of twentieth-century genetics). However, in the Blair-Brownite deregulated and privatised economy with science as the economic driver, the move towards consumer choice seems practically irresistible. Moral line after line in the sand, over 'saviour siblings' and 'cloning', are steadily crossed, with the blessing of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Authority (HEFA) and endorsed by many of the country's scientific cheerleaders. In embryo stem cell research Britain has assumed ideological if not technical leadership, in part because Bush's religiously-driven attack on all human reproduction science and technology, and commercially driven attack on environmental science has set the US effort back. New Labour has assumed the ideological mantra of the atomic bomb physicist Robert Oppenheimer that 'science is progress and cannot and must not be stopped'. Where most of Europe is morally opposed to creating embryos solely for 'therapeutic' cloning, Britain's political and scientific elite is committed to sweeping aside such moral caveats as inhibiting the forward march of a science-led global capitalism. (1)

It is not just moral difficulties that are swept aside in this forward march: so are technical ones. For example, embryonic stem cell research using both human and other animal gametes seems to be showing something of the same problems that afflicted Dolly the sheep but this seems ignorable by the new capitalist progressivism. Embryonic stem cell research (cloning by another name) is to become the future and the therapeutic cornucopia a near certainty. Meanwhile those sceptical voices which point to the gap between biotechnological promise and actual delivery--such as the failure of the Human Genome Project (HGP) to deliver on its inflated claims of gene therapy--are dismissed as mere nay-sayers. …

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