Eugenics Some Policy Issues

A state that did nothing to regulate any of the medical technologies that might be used to shape or choose the genetic endowment of future children might be regarded as irresponsible. After all, one version of the argument might go, how can a compassionate and responsible society allow children to be born with serious medical disorders, such as cystic fibrosis or Tay-Sachs disease, that would very adversely affect the length and quality of their lives when that society has the technology to prevent such harm? Alternatively, how can a compassionate and responsible society allow genetic and medical researchers to experiment with alterations in the genetic endowments of embryos if there is any risk of significant harm to the children who eventually would be born?

Both of these questions suggest a necessary and legitimate role for the state in regulating the development and use of technologies that have a eugenic purpose. However, that leaves unspecified the norms that justifiably could be invoked in a liberal pluralistic society for purposes of shaping both the content and the purpose of those policies. For example, should a compassionate and responsible society use tax monies to underwrite basic research aimed at providing the capacity to shape the genetic endowment of future children? This society already spends billions of public dollars each year through the National Institutes of Health to address an enormous range of human health problems, many of which have genetic roots. Alternatively, the genetic research that people imagine necessarily would involve the destruction of numerous embryos that were only a few days old. That would violate the deep moral convictions of many people in the society who are concerned about protecting all human life from the moment of conception. Are their concerns sufficient to take such public funding off the table?

If the destruction of embryos is a legitimate societal concern, less offensive policy options are available for achieving eugenic goals. There could be public funding for eugenic education. This could take many forms, but the general idea is that future parents would know what options were available to them for shaping naturally or technologically the genetic endowment of their children. A society could encourage widespread and complex genetic testing long before marriage by underwriting the cost of that testing so that individuals would be motivated to refrain from having children altogether, refrain from having children with partners who were genetic mismatches, or refrain from reproducing except through the use of an alternative reproductive technology.

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