Behavioral Genetics and Eugenics Some Ethical Guidelines

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics) has suggested several criteria for assessing from a moral point of view eugenic interventions aimed at improving behavioral outcomes: effectiveness, safety, reversibility, and choice.

If researchers discover genes associated with intelligence, it is likely that any one of those genes will have only very small and uncertain effects on the intellectual potential of an embryo. Consequently, embryonic genetic intervention to improve intelligence appears to be an ineffective approach. IQ scores as measured by standardized tests increased twenty to thirty points during the twentieth century. Clearly, that improvement did not result from radical genetic changes.

Safety must be a critical moral consideration, especially if the individuals whose behavior is to be affected do not have the capacity to give consent, as would be true for children and embryos. Giving Paxil to a moderately shy child may be morally objectionable when researchers are not certain of the long-term effects of that drug and the behavior to be altered is only moderately dysfunctional. Gene therapy would be problematic on this criterion for children or adults because there has been little success and some serious bad outcomes. The risks of gene therapy may be reasonable if individuals are faced with a life-threatening disorder, but that is not the case when the goal is behavioral alteration.

Reversibility is the third criterion the Nuffield Council emphasizes. It is difficult to imagine that anyone would want to be less intelligent, less happy, vulnerable to addiction, or more prone to violence. However, if researchers engage in behaviorally oriented genetic alterations, they may overshoot the mark: An individual could end up experiencing feelings of happiness in socially inappropriate situations.

The Nuffield Council notes that physicians are very reluctant to do genetic testing of children for medical disorders to which a child might be vulnerable as an adult and for which there is no medical intervention. The council recommends similar reticence if genetic tests related to what might be described as presymptomatic personality disorders were developed.

For example, a child might seem as happy as any other child in the neighborhood, but parental concerns about a family history of depression might motivate them to pursue genetic testing of that child for depression. That testing would yield no obvious good for the child but could put the child at risk for stigmatization or a maladaptive response from the parents. In addition, such nonsymptomatic nontherapeutic genetic testing represents a violation of the privacy rights and autonomy rights of that child. Also, assuming that the test identified a genetic pattern associated with depression in the child's family, everything known today would suggest that this represented no more than increased susceptibility for that disorder, not certainty that it would express itself or that its expression would be severe.

There are considerations of justice and the protection of fair equality of opportunity that are relevant to this discussion. Some writers (Silver) fear that differences in wealth will permit the rich to purchase a superior genetic endowment, especially with regard to valued behavioral traits, for their children, establishing permanently superior genetic castes. However, this is a plausible concern only extremely far into the future, if ever.

Still, there are relevant considerations of justice in the present that are related to improving the genetic endowment of future children (Fleck). Genetic testing in vitro of eight-cell embryos, or preimplantation genetic diagnosis, permits the selection of embryos that are free of certain serious genetic defects. However, this intervention costs about $40,000 per successful pregnancy. It seems reasonable to ask whether such interventions should be publicly funded as a matter of social justice and perhaps as a matter of genetic social responsibility as well.

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