A licence to kill?

Genetic modification of human beings is dangerous and divisive, says David King from the campaign group Stop Designer Babies

A licence to kill?

This year or next, the British Government will attempt to change the law to allow genetic modification of human beings (HGM), as it has just done for plants and animals. This is different to gene therapy in, for example, lung cells, where genetic changes are not passed on to children. HGM should set alarm bells ringing, as it did in the 1990s. Then, in response to the new technologies, HGM and human cloning were banned or condemned in a string of international human rights treaties and declarations as well as national laws. Yet, despite the global uproar in 2018 surrounding the announcement of the birth of the first GM babies in China, an influential group in the elite science academies of Britain and the US are pushing ahead with moves to overturn those bans. My group, Stop Designer Babies, is preparing to oppose their attempt to change the UK law before the next election. All commentators on the subject agree that there is essentially no unmet medical need for HGM, since robust existing technologies can allow parents to avoid the birth of children with severe genetic conditions.

A central feature of those scientists’ political strategy is to refuse all discussions of the historical and ongoing experience of eugenics and “race science”. Faced with scientists’ eugenics denialism, that task falls to those who were targeted for elimination by the first wave of eugenics: disabled people, black people, working class people and Jews.

A horrible history

I suspect that Jewish Socialist readers will not need reminding in detail about the history of the first wave of eugenics, or what was bad about it:

• The determination to abrogate basic humanist norms of care for the weak, the right to life and the fundamental equality of status of all human beings, in the name of the greater good of the national gene pool.

• The insistence on genetically-determined inequality amongst individuals, and the corresponding racist, antisemitic, classist and ableist judgements about social groups.

• The obsession with national degeneration caused by the over-breeding of the “feckless” working classes, and especially the burden of the “feebleminded” and other “defectives”,  leading to their forced institutionalisation and sterilisation.

• The racist immigration laws; the utopian-technocratic drive to remake society on the basis of applied biology, culminating in the murder of hundreds of thousands of disabled people in the Nazi Aktion T4 programme, and finally in the Holocaust.

This is the familiar litany of the horrors of eugenics, and it is bad enough.

But partly because that story is so bad, there is an assumption that (except, perhaps, on extreme fringes of the right) surely eugenics must be dead after nearly 80 years of liberal progress since 1945. Certainly, particularly for geneticists, psychiatrists, demographers and other professions deeply implicated in eugenics, there has been a very strong incentive to get us to believe that, and to distance their ongoing operations from eugenics. The liberal definition of eugenics as state coercion and the “abuse” of science for rightwing and racist political purposes is an ideological narrative that serves the interests of those groups. For example, although the mainstream of eugenics was strongly coloured with the class and race prejudices of the time, it was also championed in progressive/social democratic circles as embodying enlightened, scientific and humane social reform. The continuities of eugenics until the present are so strong that we must be very wary of proposals for HGM, which was always a kind of holy grail of eugenicists.

Persistent ideas

After 1945, eugenics was forced to retrench, and many eugenicists were genuinely horrified by what they regarded as the “excesses” of the Nazis. Yet many elements of eugenics persisted, including the continuing implementation of eugenic sterilisation programmes in democratic countries until the 1970s. The family planning and population control movements of the mid-20th century, targeting the reproduction of black and brown people, were funded and set up by eugenicists; counting only the forced and coercive examples of such programmes, they sterilised far greater numbers of people than the pre-war eugenics movement.

Another development of eugenics’ mid-20th century Keynesian period  (J M Keynes was a devout eugenicist) was the development and implementation by eugenicists of prenatal screening programmes. Although relying officially on parental freedom of choice, these programmes are always justified in health economics reports in the classic eugenic terms of the financial savings to the NHS from not needing to care for and treat disabled children and adults. In a society in which disability oppression remains rampant, in which women still do the vast majority of childcare, and in which benefits for families with disabled children are targeted in austerity programs, the results of these programmes are predictable and would have delighted the eugenicists of the early 20th century.

The third, neoliberal, phase of eugenics began in the 1970s with genetic engineering and the development of IVF by Eugenics Society stalwart, Robert Edwards. The invention of IVF and genetic engineering quickly revived both hopes and fears of eugenics. Silicon Valley spawned a new techno-utopian ideology of trans-humanism, according to which humans would transcend the limits of their existing biology through both genetic and information technology upgrades. Whilst eschewing coercion and overt racism, this increasingly popular eugenic ideology has strong echoes of earlier strivings for the “New Man”, and has been embraced by some elements of the left.

Modern developments

In the 1990s, the development of techniques for genetic testing and selection of IVF embryos, the genetic engineering of non-reproductive human cells (“gene therapy”) and, in 1997, the cloning of sheep, led to the national and international bans mentioned above. For a year or three we all breathed more easily. But these laws have not prevented the penetration of neoliberal market relations into human reproduction and the creation of the beginnings of a free market consumer eugenics. In the USA, for example, egg donation for infertile women is commercial, with most egg donors receiving between $5,000 and $10,000 per donation. But if you are a tall, athletic, beautiful woman from an Ivy league University, you can get $50,000 - $100,000. The logic of eugenics and capitalism are perfectly aligned: a “superior product” commands a higher price. In the USA, a company called Genomic Prediction offers parents the opportunity to choose which embryos to implant, based upon a numerical “polygenic score” for each embryo; only a public campaign forced it to withdraw tests for genes influencing IQ.

The invention of a new genetic engineering technology, known as “CRISPR” or “genome editing”, has put in place the final piece for a neoliberal consumer eugenics. In polls, a significant minority of the population is already interested in genetically “enhancing” their children with all the characteristics that first wave eugenics focused upon: superior intelligence, height, athleticism and so on, as well as racialised signifiers of beauty.

Of course, the cosmetic surgery and performance-enhancing drugs markets provide a model for where the eugenic market will go. In the de-industrialised “knowledge economy”, in which intellectual credential-based meritocratic competition has become even more dominant, parents will be obliged to compete to give their children “the best possible genetic start in life”. Obviously, since the technology will not be cheap, children of wealthy parents will be able to give their children even greater advantages over other children. The result is likely to be an increasingly stratified society in which your genetic profile is seen as determining your place in society. It is hard to believe that there would be much place for disabled people in such a society.

A subtle threat

It is often suggested that there is a risk of a “new” eugenics, but the truth is that eugenics never went away. Although it suffered a severe blow after the revelations of 1945, it persists in industrial capitalist societies because it is consistent with their fundamental technocratic logic of control of nature, human beings and society through science and technology, and because such societies will always primarily value people for their productivity. Now, with vastly increased scientific and technological sophistication and in another period of crisis of capitalism, even the right-wing and racist forms are enjoying a resurgence. In such a climate, permitting human genetic modification would be an act of extreme social irresponsibility.

But we must not let the threat of old-fashioned eugenics distract our attention from the far more subtle, pervasive and sophisticated mainstream forms, cloaked in medical benevolence and talk of progress through technology. That ideology is so pervasive in our society that we are increasingly hearing well-meaning liberals asking, “If we can get rid of its racist aspects,, and parents are allowed a free choice, then what’s wrong with eugenics? Surely it’s good to make people better.” The answer to this question goes beyond the fact that, of course, in a racist and ableist society, giving parents such choices is bound to empower racism and ableism, permitting them to dictate which kinds of people are born.

Even when crude racism and coercion are not present, what is wrong with eugenics is that, although human beings have different abilities, a civilised and humane society makes a place for everyone; the weak are protected and efforts are made to create as much equality as possible. Eugenics, whether the old-fashioned or neoliberal-meritocratic kind, is always socially and morally wrong and anti-human, because it heads in precisely the opposite direction. Based on a dogmatic anti-egalitarianism, it tries to ensure that only the most efficient people are born and that undesired characteristics and people are eliminated. Claiming scientific backing, it systematically magnifies and institutionalises inequality.

The threat of a genetically stratified society should be enough to convince anyone, and Jews in particular, that this is a road down which we must not go. Historically, Jews such as Ashley Montagu, René Cassin (who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), Steven Rose, Stephen Jay Gould and many others, including the leading members of my campaign group, Stop Designer Babies, have always been at the forefront of opposing ongoing eugenics and genetic determinism.

It is the task of those groups who were targeted for dehumanisation and elimination in the first wave of eugenics to see through that neoliberal ideology of “reproductive liberty” and progress through technology, and to remind the world of where opening the door to HGM will inevitably take us. The threat is also an opportunity to build a coalition that can overcome the divisions of identity politics and serve as a base for resistance to the many other threats that face us today.

Posted: 24 September 2023  |  Published in: Jewish Socialist No 78