Genetic Engineering or Eugenics?

For my blog post this week, I’ve chosen an article published in Genetics in Medicine in 2003, the 50 year anniversary of the discovery of DNA’s structure by Watson and Crick. Originally presented as a speech by the President of the American College of Medical Genomics and Genetics, this source addresses the increasing concern of whether modern genetics is the new eugenics. This same idea in present in Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, as the scientists play jump rope with the ethical line present in genetic engineering.

While eugenics is still greatly tied to the Nazi state and their practice of sterilization and genocide targeted at “undesirables”, today it finds its definition in prenatal determination of desirable traits and the genetic engineering tools to select for these traits. The article first explains eugenics and its history as a turn from allowing Darwinian survival of the fittest to select for positive traits to a methodical approach by humans to ensure those deemed “unfit” do not survive or reproduce. This occurred not only in Nazi Germany, but also in the US as some states (such as Virginia) had policies to sterilize inmates and the institutionalized insane populations.

This article argues that while prenatal diagnosis does seek to produce well-born children, is not a reincarnation of the eugenics of the past. It does not seek to “improve” the genetics of the overall populations nor does it “adhere to the assumptions of the eugenics of the past”. He goes on to argue that prenatal diagnosis is not unethical as human rights are not violated, the state is not dictating its practice, there is no discrimination or racism, and it doesn’t denigrate the disabled. His final point is controversial as he concedes to say that prenatal diagnosis can lead to abortion, he does not equate this to murder. He calls genetic engineering to “maintain [their] vigilance” to ensure they do not misuse the new scientific developments. This call to action concedes that there is an ethical line in genetic engineering, but where to place this line is still under debate.

This article illustrates the prevalence of critics of genetic engineering practices who claim that it is equivalent to eugenics. This idea is presented in The Year of the Flood, as new races are engineered, including Crate’s version of a perfect human race (presented in the blue people in the final section). Genetic engineering also toes the ethical line as pigs are engineered to produce human organs and this practice eventually evolves to the addition of human neurons to the pig’s brains. So, where is the ethical line in genetic engineering? Attwood doesn’t explicit draw one for us, but she highlights our current scientific ability to cross it and how easily this crossover can happen. She implores us to explore this issue and decide for ourselves where we believe this line is before it’s too late.

Citation:  Epstein, Charles J. “Is modern genetics the new eugenics?” Genetics in Medicine (2003) 5, 469–475


**side note–> is anyone else having trouble adding new tags/categories to their post?  For some reason mine will not let me create a tag, but I can use an existing one…


One response to “Genetic Engineering or Eugenics?

  1. Emily, re tag/category issue: might be a browser issue? I just added a test post with a bunch of brand new tags and categories with no problems, using Chrome. Have you changed or updated your browser since your last post? I can try and troubleshoot, but browser issues are the first stop since there’s not a limit on the number of tags or categories on WordPress, so it should be OK.


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