Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Genetic Engineering and the Egalitarian Ethos

By Fox, Dov | American Journal of Law & Medicine, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Silver Spoons and Golden Genes: Genetic Engineering and the Egalitarian Ethos


Fox, Dov, American Journal of Law & Medicine


I. INTRODUCTION

A. BACKGROUND

1. The New Genetics

What mother or father does not want to give his or her child the best chance of leading a happy and successful life? Infertile couples today enlist assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)1 to handpick from among available gamete donors or embryo arrays to implant for gestation.2 As advances in genetic science permit increasing prenatal control over offspring traits,3 even fertile couples may choose to relocate procreation from the bedroom into the laboratory.4

The development of safe genetic therapies capable of curing debilitating conditions in embryos or fetuses would be unequivocal cause for celebration.5 Less straightforwardly worthy of embrace would be techniques that make it possible to choose offspring genes for non-health related characteristics, such as strength,6 intelligence,7 and memory.8 At present, neither state nor federal law regulates ARTs.9 That human beings could one day design their descendants calls for deeper inquiry into the social implications of genetic engineering.10

2. The New Eugenics

An emerging school of commentators defend a free-market system of genetic control that protects the right of progenitors to choose the DNA of their children-to-be.11 Whereas the eugenics of old relied on state-sponsored practices like sexual segregation, miscegenation laws, and forced sterilization,12 this new eugenics involves no coercion or regulation; nor does it presuppose or promote any blueprint for what sort of people should be brought into the world.13 Proponents of the new eugenics argue that decisions about offspring design and selection should be the product of freely chosen transactions, made by individual parents, who are left to choose the genetic constitution of their offspring for themselves.14

By transferring the reins of genetic control from state ideology to parental discretion, the new eugenics permits "anyone who wishes, for whatever reason, to offer genetic services to anyone who...is willing to accept them on the terms on which they are offered."15 The new eugenics seeks to make reproductive decision-making an individualistic enterprise in two senses: first, genetic choices are made by individual families rather than by groups of state officials or relevant experts; second, they are made ./or individual offspring rather than for inclusive gene pools.16 The new eugenics leaves decisions about the genetic quality of each offspring to the discretion of individual parents; it does not make decisions about all offspring according to the collective will of the community.17 Philosopher Robert Nozick writes, this laissez faire "[genetic] supermarket system has the great virtue, that it involves no centralized decision fixing the futures of human type(s)."18

B. FRAMEWORK

1. Summary and Methodology

This Article begins by evaluating doctrinal justifications for an asserted right of progenitors to genetically engineer their offspring. In Part II, I stake a claim that routine exercise ofthat right is morally undesirable. In Part III, I argue that for a social ethos of sharing and solidarity to have moral influence, conditions must exist under which the successful have reason to ascribe the genuine misfortune of others in part to their bad luck. In Part IV, I argue that by shifting control over offspring DNA from chance to choice, genetic engineering encourages the successful (a) to (mis)perceive themselves as essentially different from the worse off and excessively entitled to the fruits of their own success; and (b) to (mis)attribute the hardship of the disadvantaged to bad choices rather than to bad luck. Finally, In Part V, I reply to objections and propose recommendations for policy.

There is an epistemological and a normative aspect to my hypothesis that genetic engineering will erode the egalitarian ethos. …

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