The New Eugenics

As this article is being written, delegates from nearly every
country are meeting at the UN to take the next steps towards
an international convention banning human reproductive cloning.
Human cloning is the latest, and loudest, in a series of new
technologies of human reproductive and genetic manipulation
that have elicited controversy and division in civil society.
Additionally, enormous payments to egg “donors”
with specific characteristics have been in college newspapers
for several years (see “Assisted Reproductive Technologies,”
July/ August 2002, Z
Magazine). Recently, the use of pre-implantation genetic
diagnosis, in which embryos are screened for certain genetic
characteristics before implantation via in vitro fertilization
(IVF), for gender selection or non-disease traits, has gained
attention. Soon, we can expect to see public debate over inheritable
human genetic engineering, the technology with the greatest
potential for social and biological impacts.

Human reproductive cloning technology is imminent and several
rogue scientists are working to create cloned children. Although
more than 30 countries have already passed laws prohibiting
reproductive cloning, the U.S. has not. The U.S. media, instead
of focusing on the Senate’s recent failure to ban a technology
that upwards of 90 percent of Americans feel should be prohibited,
offers touching stories of couples desiring clones and focuses
on the antics of cloners like Severino Antinori. The resulting
sympathy and spectacle serve to further muddle the issue.

What reproductive cloning and the other technologies mentioned
above have in common is the ability to pre-select the genetic
composition of our offspring. Children will no longer be unconditionally
accepted ends, but instead become utilitarian means. Coupled
with the continuing prevalent belief in “genetics-as-destiny,”
people will increasingly be seen as genetically superior or
inferior. A new eugenics, driven by the “free” market
and technological innovation, will be ushered in. Worse yet,
if advocates succeed in reframing reproductive cloning as
a matter of “choice,” and human inheritable genetic
engineering as “eradicating disease,” this may occur
with the consent, if not blessing, of liberals and progressives.

Of course, in the market of genetic “improvement,”
only the wealthy would have access (“Yuppie Eugenics,”
March 2002, Z Magazine) and the already socio- economically
privileged will then be the genetically privileged. Those
who struggle for human rights, equality, and social justice
must oppose this horrendous future of genetic castes. It is
worth noting that the eugenics movement of 100 years ago was
largely the product of progressives and advocates of reproductive
freedom. Yet it resulted in hundreds of thousands of forced
sterilizations in the United States and, after being mixed
with the evil logic of fascism, far worse in Europe. Barbara
Katz Rothman, a professor of sociology, has warned, “The
lessons of history have shown us what happens when people
are ordered as better and worse, superior and inferior, worthy
of life and not so worthy of life…. What can happen when
the technology used in support of genetic thinking is not
the crude technology of shackles and slave ships, of showers
that pour lethal gas and of mass ovens, or even the technology
of surgical sterilization, but the fabulous, fantastic, extraordinary
technology of the new genetics itself?… My children will
not be led to genetic technology in chains and shackles, or
crowded into cattle cars. It will be offered to them.”
As much as both progressives and liberals might shudder at
this prospect, mustering their opposition to the new techno-eugenics
clearly presents unique challenges.

As we have seen with agricultural genetic engineering, biotechnology
and related industries hope to utilize intellectual property
claims and neoliberal trade structures to privatize the genetic
commons. We can expect them to continue to strive for this
goal and to enter the lucrative market of “designer babies”
for the wealthy, by using the tactics honed in the cloning
debate. Imagine this future:

  • Reproductive
    cloning is dubbed “temporally offset twin birthing”
  • Potential
    bans are recast as infringing on a woman’s right to
    choose and discriminating against future clones
  • Somatic
    (non-inheritable) human genetic engineering is offered to
    cure disease
  • After
    a few “accidental” inheritable genetic modifications,
    such practices are defended and later marketed by the biotechnology
    industry as ending diseases forever and removing dangerous
    genes from the human gene pool
  • Since
    there is no clear line between curing disease and genetic
    enhancements (e.g., removing the gene for the propensity
    for obesity), before long wealthy parents are designing
    their children’s genome for good looks, intelligence,
    athletic ability, and economic competitiveness

At each of
these stages, the proponents of the new eugenic technologies
will try to normalize them, despite widespread impulses of
repugnance, by making stepwise arguments. More ominously,
they will try to manipulate traditional political conflicts
to divide their opponents. Most progressives and many social
conservatives share a worldview envisioning humanity as a
set of inherently equal beings that are members of a community
more important than the economic transactions therein. However,
the biotechnology industry has two cards to play in order
to fracture this coalition, both seen with recent cloning

First, by
arguing that reproductive technologies open up more “choices”
for women and that any bans violate a woman’s right to
control her body, they not only win over liberals, but cause
opponents on the right to wave the “pro-life” flag
even higher.

Second, biomedical
research remains a sacred cow, largely immune to much of the
criticism traditionally hurled towards other similar industries.
Few critics of corporate power will pause at accusations of
irresponsibility of the nuclear power, chemical production,
or even the pharmaceutical industry. But highlighting the
drawbacks to certain medical research, such as its focus on
profitable cures for the wealthy and its patenting of the
biological commons, is often equated with halting medicine
and thus tantamount to murder.

The issues
surrounding these new technologies, with their horrendous
potential impacts, fail to fall into the traditional progressive
boxes and arguments. This leaves opposition to their use,
particularly from progressives and liberals, vulnerable to
political manipulation by their proponents. The imposition
of a false right/left dichotomy by the biotechnology industry
and radical libertarians causes the critics of excess corporate
power to be divided, margin- alized, and ultimately defeated,
despite their majority.

major issues of concern to progressives can be better understood
in the context of tensions between a communitarian worldview
based in social justice and solidarity, and that grounded
in libertarianism. This has resulted in new coalitions. For
example, in the case of global investor-rights agreements,
such as FTAA and WTO, some social conservatives joined with
Greens, socialists, and labor unions to oppose the agenda
of corporate economic liberals, both Democrat and Republican.
Clearly, the libertarian sentiments on the Left have been
manipulated by the rhetoric of economic elites and corporate
interests to divide and conquer their critics. This will surely
be attempted again and we must be cautious when prioritizing
these libertarian values at the expense of social justice—especially
when those that are speaking the loudest for freedom are in
positions of socio-economic privilege.

The present
deliberations at the United Nations are a step in the right
direction and an opportunity that should not be missed. No
nation has expressed opposition to a ban on human reproductive
cloning. However, as in the U.S. Senate, the issue becomes
muddled over research cloning, in which human embryos are
created by cloning and then used for research into stem cell
technologies. Some are concerned that allowing research cloning
would make a ban on reproductive cloning impossible to enforce.
In contrast, anti-abortion rights activists view research
cloning as abortion in the name of science. Presently, a small
block of nations with anti-choice leaders are threatening
to derail the entire cloning convention. They would apparently
prefer no ban over one that prohibits only reproductive cloning.
This would be unfortunate, since it is the UN’s first
bioethics treaty and enjoys otherwise unanimous support.

Reynolds is on the staff of the Center for Genetics and Society,
a nonprofit information working to encourage responsible uses
and effective societal governance of the new human genetic and
reproductive technologies (