CRISPR is the latest chapter in a long, darkly comic history of human genetic improvement. Like whole-gene engineering in the 1970s, gene editing is proving remarkably versatile in basic science research: New applications appear weekly. But conservative researchers insist that the taboos against germ-line engineering and enhancement remain in place. However, notwithstanding the reassurance that eugenics is “generally considered abhorrent,” some commentators are actively and publicly advocating what they consider a new kind of eugenics.
The eugenics movement of the early 20th century was rooted in a spirit of collectivism. Ideals of progress and perfection dominated American culture. Across the political spectrum, Americans sought social improvement through a variety of reforms, ranging from public health to food production to workplace environments and education. Such a project required collective effort. Government legislation was broadly accepted as a tool of positive change. Cooperation for the good of society was a sign of good citizenship. And science, epitomizing rationality, efficiency, and mastery over nature, was society’s most potent tool of progress.
Scholars of disability have mounted a vigorous critique of the pursuit of genetic perfection. Call it the Gattaca defense: By granting individuals the power and permission to select against difference, we will be selecting for intolerance of difference. But Sparrow notes that enforcing diversity is itself morally problematic. Should gene editing become a safe and viable option, it would be unethical to prohibit parents from using it to correct a lethal genetic disease such as Tay-Sachs, or one that causes great suffering, such as cystic fibrosis or myotonic dystrophy.
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