The Chronicle of Higher Education has a piece out by Nathaniel Comfort, The Eugenic Impulse. I would just like to offer that to a great extent we already live in the second age of eugenics. The high frequency of abortions of fetuses which come back positive for Down syndrome is well known. But it seems possible that we’ll be able to reduce the frequency of many Mendelian diseases as well. Basically those ailments which are due to a major mutation of large effect and high penetrance (i.e., you have the mutation, you have the disease).
A major goal which we’re very far from though is the ability to select for quantitative traits. There are technical hurdles, both tactical and strategic, here. The major issue is that there are simply too many variants for one to be able to select a ‘perfect’ genetic profile. Those who’ve talked to me know my response in this domain: select for low mutational load. High coverage fetal whole genome sequencing would do that. The marketing pitch for this writes itself: imagine you, but bright of mind, and beautiful of face!
So they don’t. Instead, they buy a $100 test kit, they each provide a small blood sample and send it off to one of the companies offering fetal genome testing. At the testing lab, they can separate out the mother’s DNA from that of the fetus, both of which are present in the mother’s blood. By comparing the fetal genome to the mother’s and father’s, it’s easy to spot de novo mutations. If a certain gene doesn’t match either the mother or the father’s sequence, it’s mutated.
A few days later the results are back. There are several mismatches detected. Most are benign – they’re not predicted to have any biological effects. But there’s one, a deletion of a few thousand bases in a gene involved in brain development. This deletion is predicted to raise the risk of epilepsy and autism from 1% to 10% apiece. The parents now have a decision to make. The mutation is a one off, it’s not inherited. If they conceive again… roll the dice again… and it’ll be gone. Do they terminate?
Like the adverts say, “Some people disagree with this, but we say there’s only one person who really matters: your baby.”
A comment below clarified my thinking in one particular area: is widespread genetic screening going to result in a reconsidering of the idea of ‘engineering’ society? I realize now that in a comparative scenario this is ridiculous. The majority of healthcare expenditure is near the end of life, not the beginning. In 17 years the last of the Baby Boomers will turn 65. The looming costs are rather straightforward. And it’s not just an issue in the United States, the whole worlds is going gray.
In the comments below Jason says in regards to the connection between eugenics and genocide and the “slippery slope”:
In your current comfortable first world circumstances, you are right the slope is perhaps not that slippery. I hope you are never tested in a less comfortable setting as then I think you might find it can be pretty slippery after all.
A reference to the interlocutor’s status as a citizen of the comfortable First World (which itself is a somewhat archaic term by now I think) seems de rigueur in many arguments. And I think many people will find it plausible that someone in an affluent consumer society would be blind to the “dark side” of eugenics, and how it could lead to genocide. But I think this plausibility is entirely superficial, and collapses upon closer inspection. Rather, it is I believe in “First World” and advanced nations where the likelihood of the ubiquity of eugenics and possible genocide predicated on systematic eugenics is going to be the most probable outcome.