Writing in the Times of London today, Matt Ridley objects to people who object to gene editing on the basis that it is the slippery slope to eugenics. With all due respect to Mr Ridley, we are well down that slope already.
The writer offers three reasons why gene editing will not lead to eugenics. The first is that “the essence of eugenics was compulsion”, and there is no compulsion about it these days.
The second is that “there is little or no demand for genetic enhancement”.
He writes: “At the time test-tube babies were first conceived in the 1970s, many people feared in-vitro fertilisation would lead to people buying sperm and eggs off celebrities, geniuses, model and athletes. In fact, the demand for such things is negligible; people wanted to use the new technology to cure infertility – to have their own babies, not other people’s”.
Third, he writes, it is much harder to enhance human using our new genetic knowledge than we thought it would be.
This final reason offered by Ridley as to why gene editing will not lead to eugenics is the most convincing. If it is too hard to select certain genetic traits in our children, then that is that.
The other two reasons are much less convincing, especially the first one. In fact, it is a mystery why Ridley believes “the essence of eugenics was compulsion” when eugenics, a desire for healthy babies over ones suffering from various genetic defects, is one of the prime drivers of abortion.
We know, for example, that the vast majority of Down’s Syndrome babies who are detected in the womb are aborted. In Denmark in 2014, a staggering 98 percent met this fate.
Whether you are for or against abortion is really beside the point here. What is germane is that eugenics is absolutely and completely behind these figures. (Eugenics, remember, means “well born”)
This type of eugenics is entirely voluntary (on the surface at least) but it is undoubtedly eugenics.
Ridley’s second point, that people use their own gametes where they can in preference to using donor gametes is absolutely true, but this only proves how important the natural ties are to people.
However, when people can’t use their own eggs or sperm, then they essentially shop for the best sperm and eggs they can afford via the catalogues offered to them by sperm and egg banks. This, most assuredly, is eugenics.
So whether or not gene editing in itself (I have no objection to gene editing in principle depending on how it is done) leads to eugenics, the undeniable fact is that eugenics is now extremely widespread.