Necessary pedantry: Human genetic engineering is not eugenics.

(Late-breaking epistemic status: I still stand behind the definitional claim in the title, but my attempt to draw connections between the definitional claim and the moral argument were not very coherent.  Also, many people reading this clearly think that “population” just means the sum of individuals, so I’ve clearly got more work to do in that area of the argument as well.)

I’ve recently noticed some advocates of human genetic engineering claim that eugenics is actually a good thing. I’m pretty sure the majority of these people are not in favor of of “eugenics” as the term has historically been used, and I think misusing the word in this way has bad consequences. The distinction I’m about to draw is often ignored in public debate, but it is both pragmatic and morally necessary.

It’s also accurate. Let’s take a look at

“The study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population.”

And Wikipedia:

“A set of beliefs and practices that aim to improve the genetic quality of a human population.”

And Merriam-Webster:

“The practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population‘s genetic composition.”

The crucial word in all these definitions is “population.” Eugenics is collectivist in purpose. If a parent uses genetic engineering, selective abortion, or other means to influence their child’s genes for the benefit of that individual child – whether by preventing diseases, increasing height or intelligence, et cetera – that is not an effort to improve the genetic quality of a population.

Some may see this as a distinction without a difference – after all, if most parents have the ability to choose their childrens’ genes, and most of them choose to select against the genes for cystic fibrosis, then the prevalence of cystic fibrosis genes in the population will decline. The aggregate effect of these individual choices might be very similar to the effect of a government-imposed eugenic policy aimed at removing cystic fibrosis from the gene pool.

But for a liberal democracy, the distinction between choice and coercion is fundamental. Indeed, any ethic that values “reproductive freedom” for individuals must, almost by necessity, permit individuals significant control over medical and reproductive choices that influence their childrens’ genes while forbidding the state from forcing those decisions.

This is not, mind you, a plea for unregulated freedom to genetically engineer one’s offspring.  Liberal democracies value individual choice, but they do not practice pure medical libertarianism; most doctors will not prescribe you heroin just because you ask for it.  But it is a request to stop equating voluntary, individual-level genetic engineering with eugenics, because the ethical issues involved are very different.  It’s especially a request that people who are in favor of human genetic engineering should stop conflating it with a very different set of policies that is associated with literal Nazis.

2 comments on “Necessary pedantry: Human genetic engineering is not eugenics.

  1. inhumandecency says:

    I don’t know if you can win the war on this specific terminology, but I appreciate you pointing out the huge difference between the phenomena being discussed. To be blunter about it, historically eugenics has referred to practices including forced abortion or lifelong sterilization for people with disabilities and people convicted of crimes. In the United States, in the 20th century. There’s just no comparison with voluntary medical practices elected by the individual and it seems outrageous to try to apply the same term to them.

    • inhumandecency says:

      (maybe when children who have been subject to extensive genetic modification start growing up they’ll have things to say about how “voluntary” these interventions are but they’re still drastically different from what’s been called eugenics in the past)

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