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Human Biotechnology

The Age of the “New Eugenics”

The eugenics movement, which reached its peak between the 1920s and 1940s, promoted the selective breeding of people to encourage “strong” genetic traits while discouraging “weak” traits. In its more extreme forms, eugenics called for the forced sterilization and compulsory euthanasia of people with mental or physical disabilities or other traits perceived as undesirable. Fortunately, these barbaric forms of eugenics fell from favor following World War II and were wholeheartedly rejected by scientists, social activists, politicians, and the public.

Today, however, a new eugenics age has begun. This new eugenics is highly profit-driven and centers on biotechnology breakthroughs like genetic engineering, genetic screening, and cloning. While the methods are much different, the new eugenics holds many goals in common with the original eugenics movement. Human biotechnology techniques, for instance, can screen fertilized human eggs for specific traits, such as gender or the propensity to develop certain diseases, allowing scientists to eliminate those that carry undesirable traits. Genetic screening also allows insurance agencies to identify and discriminate against people predisposed toward certain illnesses. New eugenicists foresee a day when scientists will be able to genetically engineer healthier, smarter, or stronger people by manipulating their cells. Cloning and synthetic biology techniques could allow fast reproduction of these desirable traits.

New eugenics, like the old eugenics, brings a myriad of potential social and ethical problems. It may place an undue emphasis on the genetic roots of low intelligence, criminal behavior, and other social ills, encouraging society to disregard the roles played by one’s family situation, poverty, poor nutrition, and other environmental factors. Politicians may promote a eugenics agenda to avoid having to confront tough social problems and fund vital social services. The new eugenics also requires someone to determine what traits and features are desirable. Should we use human biotechnology to screen out or “repair” people generically predisposed towards deafness? Baldness? A certain body type? A particular gender or skin color? The biggest problem presented by the new eugenics is that it would likely encode present-day society’s prejudices into the genetic fabric we will pass on to future generations.

CTA seeks to keep policymakers, activists, and the public informed about developments in human biotechnology. CTA also encourages a strong regulatory framework to ensure that human genetics research proceeds only under strict ethical standards.

(Image credit: U.S. Department of Energy Human Genome Program)