Peter Singer Protégé Julian Savulescu Wants Gattaca a Reality

Bioethics   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Aug 20, 2012   |   3:31PM   |   Washington, DC

Rarely is there a film that presents the future with such haunting accuracy as the movie Gattaca. For those who are too young to remember the 90’s science fiction flick that stars Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law, it is a dystopian tale of haves and have-nots.

The haves have the “right” genetic make-up. The have-nots don’t. Actually the genetic haves are called “valids.” Valids have been chosen using preimplantation genetic diagnosis to have the “best” genetic make-up and they are allowed to have the profession of their choice. The genetic have-nots are called “invalids.” They are the ones unfortunate enough to be conceived naturally, in the loving embrace of their parents. Invalids, because they are not genetically “optimal”, are second-class citizens relegated to menial jobs.

Unfortunately, the science of screening for the “best” embryos in IVF is already a reality, and some ethicists say that all of us, even the fertile, are morally obliged to use these techniques to make “better” children. Everyone knows about Peter Singer, the utilitarian ethicist that argues for everything from euthanasia to infanticide. Many people do not know about his protégé Julian Savulescu, Director of The Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and the Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. Savulescu appears to have walked straight out of a scene from Gattaca.

Savulescu argues for an seemingly harmless philosophy called “procreative beneficence.” He insists that parents should choose the “best” child slated to have the “best” life judged simply on his or her genetics and if parents start being genetically selective about their kids that will make life better for all of us. Savulescu is peddling his wares to popular media. Reader’s Digest in the UK just did a piece on Savulescu and his euphemistic “procreative beneficence.” The Telegraph reports:

Professor Julian Savulescu said that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a “moral obligation” as it makes them grow up into “ethically better children”.

The expert in practical ethics said that we should actively give parents the choice to screen out personality flaws in their children as it meant they were then less likely to “harm themselves and others”….

By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out.

In the end, he said that “rational design” would help lead to a better, more intelligent and less violent society in the future.

“Surely trying to ensure that your children have the best, or a good enough, opportunity for a great life is responsible parenting?” wrote Prof Savulescu, the Uehiro Professor in practical ethics….

“Indeed, when it comes to screening out personality flaws, such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children.

“They are, after all, less likely to harm themselves and others.”

“If we have the power to intervene in the nature of our offspring — rather than consigning them to the natural lottery — then we should.”

So in Savulescu’s world loving your children as they are is bad parenting and leaving their genetic make-up to nature is irresponsible, morally-objectionable behavior. Gattaca anyone?

The thing that drives me even more crazy than Savulescu’s pernicious philosophy is the media’s refusal to properly report what he proposes. Articles like this one make it sound like genes will be popped in and out of embryos to make them better. (Ex: “By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos”) That is not at all what Savulescu is suggesting. He wants us to create masses of embryos, using IVF even for the fertile, and then choose the “best” of many and discard the rest. The rest being the ones that don’t make the genetic cut. Gattaca anyone?

In addition, I really do not understand where Savulescu gets the idea that we can predict anti-social behaviors on genetics alone. We could screen out embryos all day long and still end up with a world full of Ted Bundys. There is such a thing called environment that has as much to do with personality as genetics. Genetics is much more complicated that a simple sequence of nucleotides. Anyone who knows anything about genetics can tell you that.

Of course this is eugenics repackaged for a more technological age, but Savulescu isn’t deterred. He falls for the fallacy that this time eugenics is different because parents can choose instead of being coerced by the government.

But “choice” will not save us from the evils of reducing people to their genetic make-up and picking the “best” based on that flawed criteria. On example is the demographic nightmare of the 163 million missing women in Asia due to sex-selective abortion. Sex selection is illegal in countries like India and China. Those governments are trying to prevent the practice not force it on their citizens. And yet, through millions of individual choices of parents to have the “best” genetic child for them, a boy, the equivalent to the entire female population of the United States is gone.

By sheer numbers, the “choice” of individual parents to eliminate 163 million future women simply because they lacked a Y chromosome, out paces the devastation of any Nazi or Communist regime.

The only way to avert the evils of eugenics is simply not to subscribe to the idea that some of us are genetically superior to others. We all have worth that is not based on a string of nucleotides. None of us should be discarded in favor of another that is deemed “genetically superior.” Salvulescu’s “procreative benefience” is simply another way of labeling people as “valid” and “invalid.” To subscribe to “procreative benefience” is to embrace the eugenic world of Gattaca. I say, “No thank-you!”