Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Those Unethical Ethicists

Nov 18, 2008

Why is it that Australia seems to produce so many “ethicists” who would perhaps have been perfectly at home in a certain European nation about 70 years ago (beginning with ‘G’ and ending with ‘y’). Why do they so often seem to be advocates for the culture of death, and so very devoid of any respect for human life?

Think of some Australian ethicists, philosophers, and biomedical experts such as Peter Singer, or Alan Trounson, or Julian Savulescu. They are all prominent medical thinkers or practitioners, and all have a Brave New World feel about them.

Consider the recent remarks of Prof Savulescu. In an article entitled “Breeding perfect babies” he makes the case for genetic engineering and designer babies. He argues that “we have a moral obligation to select the embryo with the best chance of the best life”. He says new developments in testing for genetic disease mean anyone can now pick and choose the characteristics they want for their baby.

He explains, “The (AU$3,440) test, called karyomapping, which should be available as early as next year, will allow couples at risk of passing on gene defects to conceive healthy children using IVF treatment. The ‘genetic MoT’ will transform the range of inherited disorders that can be detected. Currently only 2% of the 15,000 known genetic conditions can be detected in this way. Not only can it test for muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, but it can be used for testing for the risk of developing heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s in later life.”

Now it is one thing to think about screening for certain genetic diseases. But Savulescu is quite happy to take all this much further. “We should want our children to begin life with best genetic start. People worry that this is a slide down a slope to creating designer babies, to testing for eye colour, height, mental and physical abilities. But we should embrace the selection of such non-disease traits, if they contribute to a child having better chance of a better life. Why wouldn’t we choose an embryo which will grow into a better ability at maths or music. Indeed, we should give our children the greatest range of gifts possible.”

This is really all about creating designer babies who are made to order for adults with selective tastes. It is indeed about playing God, and determining just who is allowed to live, and who will not be allowed to live.

Yet Savulescu simply dismisses any ethical concerns people might have about all this: “People worry that this is like the Nazis weeding out the weak and inferior. Or that it will result in a two tiered society of the genetically privileged and the genetically underprivileged, as in the film Gattaca. But these fears are misplaced provided we focus on testing for genes that make our children’s lives go predictably better. Nature has no mind to fairness or equality. Some people are born with horribly short genetic straws. Enabling couples to choose the best of the embryos will reduce natural inequality.”

But what he is proposing is exactly the stuff of Nazi Germany and Gattaca. It is all about the creation of a superior race, based on genetics and selective breeding. Too bad about those who won’t be able to afford all this high-biotech utopia. They will simply become the genetic underclass that Gattaca so rightly warns about.

And the fact that nature deals us all an uneven hand is no argument for genetic manipulation, selection and the creation of a perfect race. This is problematic for numerous reasons. Let me mention just a few.

A major problem is this: what do parents do with all the genetic information provided by the doctor? The truth is, many of the diseases tested for have no known cures at present. So the usual solution is that the doctor advises an abortion. Indeed, many doctors and clinics will not do genetic testing unless the couple gives prior consent to having an abortion.

But as ethicist Anthony Fisher reminds us, scientists should focus on curing such diseases rather than eliminating people with the condition. Genetic screening can easily lead to selective breeding and selective abortion. It can easily lead us to a return to eugenics.

Genetic reductionism

But there may be even greater problems to worry about here. It seems that the very notions of human rights and human dignity come under threat here. The new genetics is in many ways related to the reductionism of the human person. That is, the more we come to know about the human genome, the more we are tempted to explain everything in terms of genetics. While we certainly can be understood in part by our genetic makeup, we are more than the sum of our genes. Bioethicist Leon Kass puts it this way:

“One of the most worrisome but least appreciated aspects of the godlike power of the new genetics is its tendency to ‘redefine’ a human being in terms of his genes. Once a person is decisively characterized by his genotype, it is but a short step to justifying death solely for genetic sins.”

Not only is this whole process dehumanising, but it means that certain technocrats will be making decisions which will have huge moral and social ramifications. As C.S. Lewis warned with great prescience years ago in The Abolition of Man: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”

He went on to say, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.”

No one denies that nature deals us a bad hand at times, and there certainly is a place for taking steps to correct some of this. People born short-sighted obviously can make use of corrective prescription glasses. And there may well be a place for genetic testing for certain diseases and defects.

But the whole enterprise is fraught with danger, and the desire to move on to designer babies, complete with improved musical and mathematical abilities – as Savulescu desires – is surely putting us on the wrong road. Indeed, we have travelled down that road before, and it has not been a pretty sight.

The path to a coercive utopia is often paved with good intentions. We all want to live longer and healthier lives. But as Leon Kass reminds us, “It is not just survival, but survival of what that matters. . . . [S]imply to covet a prolonged life span for ourselves is both a sign and a cause of our failure to open ourselves to this – or any other – purpose. It is probably no accident that it is a generation whose intelligentsia proclaim the meaningless of life that embarks on its indefinite prolongation and that seeks to cure the emptiness of life by extending it.”

Quite so. As we increasingly lose our understanding of what it is to be human, and what is really important in life, we increasingly look to play God, either to extend our own physical lives, or that of our offspring. But there are right ways and wrong ways of doing this. Denying God, and/or seeking to take His place is not the right way to proceed.

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10 Responses to Those Unethical Ethicists

  • I quote – “eugenics – creating a better world by improving the human gene pool.” Is this not a major part of what Nazi Germany stood for? The Boys from Brazil and all that?

    You’ve probably heard the question posed before: “A woman is pregnant and already has 8 children, 3 are blind, 2 are deaf, and she has syphilis. Would you recommend that she have an abortion? If you said yes, then you would have killed Beethoven.”

    We have been warned in books such as (1984 and Animal Farm etc.), plays, movies (Gattaca, Blade Runner) and by philosophers of such dangers as eugenics, cloning, growing humans for parts (stem-cells etc.), and about the rise of a centralised all-powerful one world government, the total erosion of our privacy through unrestricted monitoring and tracking, and the direct control of us through economics (gov’t registered to be able to buy and sell), yet we keep on buying into this stuff – it is ‘sold’ to us so easily, often with the lamest excuses. We’ve said ‘yes’ to the killing of our unborn children, ‘yes’ to gov’t monitoring of citizens, ‘yes’ to the destruction of the basic family unit and to marriage as a essential and worthwhile life-long enterprise, ‘yes’ to cloning, ‘yes’ to growing humans for parts, ‘yes’ to the elevation of personal rights over the good of community, ‘yes’ to the culture of Me, ‘yes’ to protection of our economic interests while millions die of hunger and thirst, ‘yes’ to genetically modified food, ‘yes’ to huge government who we expect to ‘save’ us and tell us what we want to hear… I mean, really it’s not like we haven’t been warned – yet we buy into it all like lemmings.

    Garth Penglase

  • Hi Bill, you rightly use Nazi Germany as the prime and obvious example of eugenics. However I came across this article, which proposes America Eugenics as the founders of the movement which was later adopted an ‘perfected’ by Hitler.

    Garth Penglase

  • Dear Bill, excellent article as we all confidently expect of you. Just thought that these additional articles could add to the discussion. Part of the drive for ‘designer babies’ is the fact that couples are much older, often control freaks who have made sure they have their ‘designer careers’ and ‘designer homes’ and ‘designer lifestyles’ and partners before they top it of with the ‘designer token baby ‘as they approach 40.

    This is as bizarre as it gets in this genetic engineering nightmare, just proving there is’ nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes)! This whole topic is so ‘yuk factor’ it is a sign of how desensitised our society has become that Julian S. can spout such evil nonsense and people are not immediately repulsed. I have always had great trouble with the often used argument and the terminology of ‘ playing God ‘ as God dosen’t play games with any of us and dole out imperfection and genetic mistakes. Rather the whole understanding of the Fallen and cursed Creation because of Man’s rebellion in our Original father, (and our inheritance of a ‘sin’ nature) Adam needs to be explained and appreciated.

    “A decade ago, when the newly opened Russian government archives revealed details of biologist Ilia Ivanov’s attempts to create an ape-human hybrid in the 1920s, it made international headlines. Why had Ivanov’s project, which included expensive expeditions into Africa, been both sanctioned and financed by the Bolshevik government at a time when few Russians were allowed to leave the country? Some suggested that the military commanders aimed to breed super-strong hairy ape-man warriors for what The Sun in London referred to as ‘Stalin’s mutant ape army’.1 However, neither Ivanov’s nor the government’s actual motives for the project were spelled out clearly in the archive documents.”

    Hitler’s ‘master race children’, Lebensborns are haunted by their past and the promiscuous and unethical way they were genetically selected for ‘breeding’. Here are two classic Hitler quotes. The underpinning behind this modern day designer babies push is blatantly evolutionary evil worldviews and axioms.

    “Hitler justified his racism by appealing to Darwinian science. He wrote, ‘The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker, which would signify the sacrifice of its own higher nature. Only the born weakling can look upon this principle as cruel, and if he does so it is merely because he is of a feebler nature and narrower mind; for if such a law did not direct the process of evolution then the higher development of organic life would not be conceivable at all’. ‘If Nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such a case all her efforts,throughout hundreds of thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile’.”

    “Between 1935 and 1945, there were born some 10,000 children in Germany and an estimated 9,000 in Norway as part of a Nazi genetic engineering plan to build up an Aryan ‘master-race’ or super-breed of humanity. This scheme was known as the Lebensborn or ‘Fountain of Life’ program. Special clinics were set up where SS men were encouraged to mate with blue-eyed, blonde Nordic girls who had no Jewish ancestry, in order to produce ‘racially pure’ German offspring. The resultant babies were then brought up in the foster care of dedicated Nazi couples or reared in special orphanages. There were at least ten Lebensborn homes in Germany, and nine in Nazi-occupied Norway, where the unmarried pregnant women could give birth in secret away from their homes. The babies were christened in a ritual in which an SS dagger was held over them as the mother swore allegiance to Nazi ideology. If any of the children born into the program were disabled, they were killed or sent to concentration camps.”

    “Instead of becoming part of the new master race, the children procreated in the Lebensborn homes suffered greatly after WWII, with the collapse of Nazi Germany. As illegitimate babies from a Nazi propagation program, many lived out their lives in confusion and ostracism. For others, discovering the truth was equally traumatic. In Norway, those born of Norwegian mothers and German soldiers—‘children of the enemy’—faced pitiless discrimination and were often harassed, beaten, and called ‘Nazi swine’. In November 2006, some 40 of the survivors met in Wernigerode, Germany, (‘where the Harz Lebensborn home contributed over 1,100 babies to the scheme’) for mutual encouragement and to confront their past life of shame and the horror of finding out they had been bred in clinics to be the next generation of Nazi elite. Those present ‘showed little of the aura of the supermen and women they were created to be. They were racked with the ailments of ordinary aging, some stooped, some portly, many dark-haired, plenty with poor vision and hearing impairments’.”

    “Lebensborn child Ursula Jaeckel, now 62, told how she was abused by other children and by her foster mother, after the war was lost. Gisela Heidenreich, born in a Lebensborn home in Norway, was the daughter of an SS commander and a German secretary. Her childhood was filled with abuse and rage from her foster parents and her fellow school children. ‘We were created to be a super race and we ended up merely asking, “Who am I? How did I get here?”’ she said. Helga Kahrau says, ‘Being a Lebensborn child is still a source of shame.’ This shame is the bitter legacy for those who were produced to rule the world—innocent pawns in the Nazis’ diabolical game.”

    As a matter of complete contrast this is such an uplifting story of two parents and their special baby. Singer, Savulescu and Trounsen would undoubtedly sentence to death little Jenny:

    Jennifer Parfenovics

  • Thanks Jennifer for your post. I checked the links and it is almost a thing of fantasy and yet it happened.

    Darwin and his ilk have much to answer for.

    Just a little aside… the term ‘playing God’ doesn’t actually insinuate that God plays games with us; it only refers to a person trying to play the role of God. It’s like ‘playing doctor’ as a child which is simply putting oneself into a role play as a doctor not suggesting that doctors ‘play at what they do, or play with their patients’. However whereas role play as a doctor it is an appropriate thing for us to do, not so ‘playing God’ for obvious reasons.

    Garth Penglase

  • Hi Bill, I am wondering if anyone out there has anything to say about the work of John Zizioulas, known to be the ‘Theologian of the Person,’ in relation to his assertion “to ask what it means to be a person is the most important question that we can ask at this period in history”.
    Stan Fishley

  • It’s interesting how eugenics seems to be justifying what it does on the basis that being genetically blessed with good looks/intelligence/talent gives you the best chance at life possible. I remember reading in a book by Choo Nam that she used to pity the disabled in her church, until she found out that they loved God more and were humbler than most ‘healthy’ people.

    There are good things that come from not having the world handed to you on a silver platter from birth.

    Natasha Sim

  • Thanks Natasha

    Yes, quite right. And I note that as a believer you used the word “blessed” – and rightly so. But notice that Savulescu smuggles in the word “gift”. He is a secularist, but even he has to refer to talents and abilities as ‘gifts’. But of course there can only be gifts if there are givers. Who is the giver? We believe that it is God who gives the gift of life to each person, and that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

    But for the secularist, we just have whatever nature dishes out to us. Certainly these are not gifts, but the mere results of genetics and purposeless, unguided evolution. Thus this is ultimately a battle of worldviews: the Judeo-Christian worldview versus the secular-humanist worldview.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Yes Natasha, The only thing we will take with us after death is our characters – our spiritual maturity or lack of it.

    David Skinner, UK

  • Excellent, Bill.

    Have I mentioned previously that these ideas are often the stuff of science fiction?

    The late Isaac Asimov explored some of the implications of eliminating disease and weakness, and the resulting longevity, in his Robot novels: “The Caves of Steel” “The Naked Sun” and “The Robots of Dawn” along with “Robots and Empire” much later.

    Even he, a thorough-going evolutionist and definitely anti-creationist, saw some of the unpalatable implications.

    Naturally he didn’t see the kinds of philosophical and moral objections we raise, and his novels are replete with images of a rigid totalitarian society.

    Arthur C Clarke also looked at these in his 2001 and 2010 novels, and I can only presume that Frank Herbert went off his rocker in the later novels of his Dune series. I couldn’t stand the later ones, trying to figure out the philosophy, so I gave up.

    These big names of sci-fi have had a little-recognised but major influence on the thinking of the last two or three generations, and paved the way for the kind of thinking we see today to be accepted as mainstream.

    John Angelico

  • Bill,

    There is a huge problem with how all this is described. The ethicists and practitioners talk about gender selection and choosing characteristics. They won’t be honest and say, “We kill the ones you don’t want.”

    Would you be impressed with a doctor who administered tests, not with a view to treatment, but with only the two options, kill or let live? “Your blood test is positive, swallow this pill. Nurse! Another trolley for the morgue.”

    Don’t our unborn babies deserve the care and protection we demand ourselves?

    Michael Hutton, Ariah Park

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