The Risks of Pushing Towards Perfection

Author: Prof. Barbara Chyrowicz

The Risks of Pushing Towards Perfection

Prof. Barbara Chyrowicz

Pontifical Academy for Life Congress: New frontiers of genetics and the dangers of eugenics

An attempt to perfect human nature through biomedicine could lead "not only to the elimination of the dysfunctions of the human organism, but also to endowing it with the traits that are not directly related to the nature of the Homo sapiens species, or even with an entire new trait scale". Thus begins the lecture — excerpts of which follow — given by Prof. Barbara Chyrowicz at the academic congress promoted by the Pontifical Academy for Life on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. Entitled "New frontiers of genetics and the dangers of eugenics", the assembly was held from 20-21 February [2009] in the Vatican's New Synod Hall.

Selective Eugenics

The purpose of selective eugenics is either to prevent the birth of babies showing serious genetic or structural disorders, or to terminate their lives once they have already been born.... Elimination or annihilation of genetically flawed individuals is perceived as a chance of eliminating genetic diseases from the population and as a prospect for a general improvement in its overall biological condition. Selection of this kind can be accomplished at various stages of the baby's life.

The first (and in the temporal sense the earliest) opportunity may be provided by genetic counselling offered to future parents. Once potential genetic anomalies of one of them (or of both of them) are found, they can abandon the idea of having their biologically own children, and take the opportunity to use (male or female) gamete transfer from external donors.

The second possibility of selection is offered by preimplantation genetic diagnosis involving in vitro technologies. In this case, selection is applied to embryos made in laboratory test-tubes, with a view to finding their genetic anomalies. Only those embryos that successfully pass the test are qualified to be transferred in uterus.

The third possibility of the selection of human beings to be born involves prenatal diagnosis. After a baby is diagnosed to be sick by means of genetic tests, it is killed on eugenic grounds. However, in the argumentation that accompanies such procedures, eugenic grounds are not referred to directly. Instead, as it is the ease with PDG (preimplantation genetic diagnosis), the good of the unborn child is invoked. Non-being is assumed to be better for him (or her) than being that is genetically flawed. Ideas of this kind are currently developed also in the field of law and they are manifest in phrases such as a "wrongful conception", a "wrongful life" or a "wrongful birth".

The proponents of PDG stress that embryo selection is significantly a better "solution" than abortion as far as elimination of genetically flawed human beings is concerned: The baby's mother is not pregnant yet and she does not feel attachment to her child, while abortion is always a traumatic experience and a shock to the mother's organism, a shock that, owing to PDG, the woman can avoid.

The proponents of the third method of eugenic selection enumerated above are also opponents of abortion. In their opinion, even babies in the case of whom prenatal diagnosis has proved serious genetic or structural disorders must be allowed to be born. However, after it has been confirmed that a serious defect prevents any chance that the infant will enjoy of life showing the desired psychophysical quality, the therapy is abandoned except for nursing. Therefore, such a procedure is referred to as selective non-treatment. [It] is by no means more humane than abortion.

Eugenic selection most frequently involves annihilation of human beings. Apart from referring to the "wrongful life" theory, their proponents frequently make recourse to the argumentation from the "responsibility for future generations" and hold that we are morally responsible not only for the existence of future generations but also for their psychophysical quality.

Thus, once we are able to diagnose sickness in advance, allowing the birth of a baby with this sickness would be an irresponsible act, tantamount to harming the infant in question. It would have been better for him (or her) not to have come into existence at all.

In the context in question, the paradox inherent in the presented argumentation lies in its claim that human beings should be killed not only for the sake of their own alleged good, but also for the sake of the good of those who have not come into existence yet.

Enhancement Eugenics

Enhancing human nature can be perceived as continuation of selection, the most emblematic evidence being that of the practice of artificial insemination with the sperm of selected donors, a eugenic idea advanced by Robert Graham, founder of the Repository for Germinal Choice.1 This kind of selection (its range being determined by the laws of inheritance) is made in the hope of conceiving children with potentialities that are higher than average. Generally speaking, the process of selection involves elimination of the individuals who do not meet the qualitative standards determined by the potentialities of the species, while enhancement tends to surpass the standards set by the species.

However, determining the new, supra-species standards remains to be a prerogative of man, and thus the objection of playing God is put forward in the debates on enhancement of human nature, or rather in its criticisms. This objection is used in particular in reference to the human decisions based on a wrong appreciation of the value of life or in reference to the interference in nature the consequences of which man is unable to predict.

Man is incapable of creating things, he can merely process them and that is why both in the case of the first procedure (selection) and in the case of the second one (enhancement) the way human nature is approached evokes the connotation of manufacture. Considering the character of human production described above as manufacture one can suppose that the next stage will be no longer enhancement of human nature, but rather changing it.

First of all, enhancement of human nature does not have to express eugenic attitudes. The reason is that nature can be perfected within the potential of the species, by way of physical or intellectual training. For instance, preventive immunization of the human organism against infectious diseases can be considered a way to enhance human nature. Moreover, not all the forms of enhancing human nature — much as they may have been already marked with eugenic ideas — involve interference with the human genetic inheritance. For instance, a cosmetic surgery is also a form of enhancing human nature, so are certain applications of psychopharmacology, the top accomplishment in this respect being the famous Prozac, which not only eliminates the feeling of depression, but. also suppresses remorse and enhances self-esteem.2

Neither do cosmetic surgeries arouse moral anxieties if they serve to correct inborn defects, such as a cleft plate, or if their purpose is to correct injuries suffered in accidents. Psychopharmacology in turn offers a chance of normal functioning for mentally handicapped individuals. Cosmetic surgeries and psychopharmacology do not become morally controversial as long as they are not used to treat individuals who are not sick.

The most serious moral controversies over enhancing human nature concern situations when the purpose of the enhancement in question is to endow the human organism with an expression of its traits that will surpass the potential of the Homo sapiens species. Current advances in modern genetics open new possibilities for eugenic projects and so one can speak about a "new eugenics", in the case of which enhancement goes beyond "external cosmetology", affecting the inner structure of human nature and gradually changing it. In other words, one can say that "enhancement" of human nature goes beyond "correction", transgressing therapy (broadly understood), and becomes its reverse.

Thus the treatment/enhancement distinction has been introduced. Yet it is relatively difficult to draw a sharp borderline between these two kinds of medical intervention, if we take into consideration the difficulties in formulating the definition of sickness and in determining a universally accepted conception of the goals of medicine.

From the point of view of the goals of medicine, enhancing human nature is as futile as persistent therapy. In both cases the doctor is not obliged to meet the requirements of his patients, unless he has some extra-medical goals in view. However, these extra-medical goals have a predominantly eugenic character, which is even strengthened by the already mentioned argument "from the responsibility for future generations" put forward in contemporary debates.

The response to the problems generated by the progress in genetics is seen in the creation of a new discipline within applied ethics called "genEthics", which will be particularly apt to consider the question whether — or to which extent — we should strive towards the enhancement of the psychophysical condition of our species, once we have mastered the possibilities of intervention in it. The programmatic task of this new science would be to determine the scope of our responsibility for future generations, which, however, is tightly connected to eugenic projects.

How can we affect the lives of future generations? Proportionally to the possibilities. American ethicist David Heyd points to three fields of such action: Firstly, we may affect future generations' coming to existence; secondly — the size of this population, and thirdly — its quality.

Yet the following problems arise here: Are we obliged to increase the number of happy individuals in the world or at least to prevent the birth of unhappy ones — and if the answer is yes, what is the scope of this duty? Are we responsible for the survival of the species, and if so, should we not tend to limit the size of the population, out of the concern to provide an acceptable living standard for future generations? To what extent can we approve of the supposedly benevolent prospective project of licensing children, which will involve the technologies of genetic engineering?3

Nature as the Norm

Genetic code is universal to all living organisms. However, when we strive to defend the unique character of human nature, we are not concerned merely about biology, although it is the biological nature, and in particular the complex nervous system, that constitutes the basis of human expression in its rationality and freedom. Our biological human nature is subject to laws, while rational human nature — to employ Kant's terminology — makes it possible for the human being to "act according to his conception of laws", which in turn presupposes free will. The human being has his "conception of laws", which means that he discerns the moral order, as opposed to being passively subordinated to it. This means he has a choice.

It is somewhat difficult to consider responsibility for future generations, while we simultaneously question our responsibility for the lives of those who already exist. In the case of the attempts to enhance human nature, we are dealing with the otherwise legitimate desire of perfection. The problem is, however, that the enhancement or perfection of the human being is accomplished on a totally different plane than the purely biological one. In the Christian perspective, the purpose will always be to strive for moral perfection approaching sanctity available to everyone.

The human being accomplishes moral perfection proportionally to his potentialities and his efforts, always assisted by the grace of God. This kind of perfection is available to the healthy as well as to the sick and handicapped. In the case of those who lived too short a life or were handicapped, which prevented them from taking any rational and free decision, there was also no opportunity to commit an even slightest evil. Thus natural defects are not an obstacle in attaining salvation, while killing the handicapped certainly is.


1 N. AGAR, Liberal Eugenics. In Defence of Human Enhancement, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing .2004, p.

2 C. ELLIOT, A Philosophical Disease. Bioethics, Culture and Identity, New York — London: Routledge 1999, s. 49-74; C. FREEDMAN, Aspirin for the Mind? Some Ethical Worries about Psychopharmacology, in: Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications, ed. by E. Parens, Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press 1998, p. 145-150.

3 D HEYD, Genethics. Moral Issue in the Creation of People, Berkeley Los Angeles — Oxford: University of California Press.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 February 2009, page 15

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