We entered a new phase as a species when Chinese scientists altered a human embryo to remove a potentially fatal blood disorder — not only from the baby, but all of its descendants. Researchers call this process "germline modification." The media likes the phrase "designer babies." But we should call it what it is, "eugenics." And we, the human race, need to decide whether or not we want to use it.
Last month, the scientific establishment weighed in. A National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine joint committee endorsed embryo editing aimed at genes that cause serious diseases when there is "no reasonable alternative." But it was more wary of editing for "enhancement," like making already-healthy children stronger or taller. It recommended a public discussion, and said that doctors should "not proceed at this time."
The committee had good reason to urge caution. The history of eugenics is full of oppression and misery. In the 20th century, it was used by the powerful to demonize marginalized groups and to enact laws that prevented the "unfit" from having children. But the committee was also right to support limited embryo editing. This time around, eugenics could be a force for good.
"Eugenics" was coined by Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, from the Greek words for "good" and "born." Galton argued that rather than rely on the chaotic process of evolution, humanity could take its future into its own hands by seeing to it that people with the best genes had the most children.
The early eugenicists were idealists — men such as Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell — who hoped to harness science to build a better world. It did not take long, however, for what Galton called his "virile creed, full of hopefulness" to turn into something darker.
Starting with Indiana in 1907, a majority of states enacted laws authorizing forced sterilization of the "feebleminded," a malleable category that included people who did poorly on primitive and wholly unreliable IQ tests. The laws also called for sterilizing people who were deaf, blind, sick or poor — all thought to be heritable conditions.
The Supreme Court weighed in strongly on the side of eugenics. In a now-infamous 1927 decision, it ruled that Virginia could sterilize Carrie Buck, a young woman falsely labeled feebleminded. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for an 8-1 majority, called for more sterilizations to remove those who "sap the strength of the State."
Before the eugenic era ended, some 70,000 Americans would be forcibly sterilized — many of them, like Carrie Buck, perfectly healthy, both mentally and physically. Eugenics did far more harm in Nazi Germany, where 360,000 or more people were forcibly sterilized in the service of a warped racial ideology.
Given this track record, we should certainly debate human embryo editing and all of the new human-breeding discoveries yet to come. But we should also recognize that there is a crucial difference between the old eugenics and the new. Rather than demonizing "unfit" people and working to sterilize them, the new eugenics regards their inherited disabilities as treatable medical conditions and seeks to help them have healthy children.
Some of the biggest supporters of human-embryo editing today are people who carry genes for serious disorders like beta thalassemia, the disease the Chinese scientists were working on. Jeff Carroll, a Western Washington University neuroscientist who inherited the mutation for Huntington's disease — which can cause people to lose bodily control and slowly go mad, like his mother did — has been outspoken in favor. "I am saying, please, please do mess with our DNA," he told the MIT Technology Review.
What we have to think about more carefully is expanding the definition of "disability" to the point that parents are editing embryos to remove shortness, shyness or other qualities they may find undesirable. We could conclude, as a society, that parents can do as they wish. Or we might conclude that editing human embryos for "enhancements" of this kind is too close to the old eugenics — and that through parents' individual choices to design a "better" baby we run the risk of collectively trying to make ourselves into a master race. The point is that we need to figure out what we believe.
We must also guard against any attempt to make human-embryo editing mandatory. It is not, after all, such a great a leap from "you can have a genetically improved baby" to "you must have a genetically improved baby." At the same time, we will have to make sure that everyone has the option to use the new technologies. There would be serious equity concerns if genetic screening and therapies were only available to the well-off — and inherited diseases became the exclusive preserve of the poor.
Most sobering is the fact that edits to a human embryo can be passed on to future generations. Anything with the potential to change humanity forever must not be undertaken lightly.
As a practical matter, though, the genie is already out of the bottle, and it is unlikely we could stop embryo editing if we wanted to. New advances are coming rapidly, and gene editing is only becoming easier, faster and cheaper.
Again, that need not be a bad thing. Twentieth century eugenics has rightly been called a "war on the weak" — its goal was to stop people with conditions like Huntington's disease from reproducing. Twenty-first century eugenics can enable people with the Huntington's gene to have children without it. The new eugenics can be a war for the weak.
Adam Cohen is the author of "Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck," which is being published in paperback this month.
MORE FROM OPINION