The New Eugenics

Can We Pick and Choose Our Children?

Eugenics had its heyday in the early part of the twentieth century. Eugenics theory taught that selective breeding among humans would eventually eradicate undesirable physical traits. Individuals and groups who possessed undesirable traits were to be forcibly sterilized to prevent their reproduction. The theory of eugenics (literally, “good genes”) enjoyed wide popularity in its beginning.

That is, until it was adopted as a major facet of the Nazi program in Germany.

The Nazis perfected the more brutal methods of eugenic theory, and the result was the attempted extermination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other unwanted groups. Since then, eugenics has fallen into predictable disrepute. Recently, however, new developments in genetic science have resurrected some of the goals of the old eugenics projects.

Bright Side of Genetic Sciences

Currently, genetic testing is becoming a common tool for physicians and diagnosticians. The general idea behind genetic testing is that there are certain genes which predispose a person to certain genetic traits, including an array of hereditary diseases. In some cases, the discovery of these genes may give doctors an edge in fighting the diseases which will result.

For example, young children identified as having the gene mutation which leads to cystic fibrosis have sometimes been treated with a variety of preventative medications and therapies, aimed at reducing the severity of the condition once it surfaces. Now, were this type of diagnosis and treatment the extent of genetic testing’s influence (and were such preventative treatments shown to be beneficial with any consistency), then there would be no cause for concern.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.

Pick and Choose

In some cases, genetic testing is used to diagnose an unborn child’s propensity toward genetic disease. For example, pregnant women will commonly undergo amniocentesis, which tests various conditions, including Trisomy 21 — popularly known as Down syndrome.

As genetic science advances, however, in utero identifications of more and more genetic conditions are becoming a reality. Already, parents who feel that a child with Down syndrome will have a poorer “quality of life” than an otherwise healthy child choose to abort their unborn children at least thirty percent of the time, according to the American Journal of Medical Genetics. And the frequency of similar decisions is likely to increase as the availability of more extensive genetic testing increases. 

This issue takes on a new gravity with the recent birth in Mexico of the first child conceived with the aid of a new form of mitochondrial gene therapy. The hope is that through this technique that utilizes the DNA from three separate donors (thus giving rise to the popular name “Three Parent Baby”) various mitochondrial diseases can be eradicated.

The New Eugenics

But as some commentators have pointed out, this type of genetic picking and choosing may transition quickly from merely removing the threat of disease to removing any undesired genetic trait.

It is not inconceivable that science will soon tie certain character traits to genetic factors as well: propensities towards violence, alcoholism, or sexual promiscuity, for example. Will parents whose unborn children have these genetic markers feel a societal responsibility to abort their children? Will some argue that this would be a good way to preemptively purge the world of its worst offenders? Thus, the castrated giant of eugenics begins to rise from his sterile grave.

But the unfolding complexities of the genetic sciences are an issue not only for those who are expecting children. It also affects those who are considering having children. Take the case of the man who has a hereditary heart condition, or the woman who has a gene mutation that results in breast cancer. They know that any children they bear will have a strong likelihood of being afflicted with the same disease as themselves. Now they are faced with the quandary of whether to reproduce at all. 

Perhaps we can make the scenario even more dubious: consider the Christian couple of the still indistinct — but not unimaginable — future, who, through advances in genetic testing, discover that one of them possesses a dominant gene that relates to homosexual attraction. Should they knowingly conceive a child who very well might have a genetic predisposition towards a sexual sin? Perhaps they would feel that it would be wrong to bring a new life into this world weighed down with the burden of such a struggle. This is the new eugenics.

Two Clear Responses

Christians should respond in at least two ways to these complex issues. The first is to ask the age-old question: Is this choice ours to make? Do we really have the authority to decide what determines “quality of life,” either for a child or for society? The answer — for those who trust in the authority of the Bible — is no. The only one who can authoritatively make this choice is the divine author of the life himself: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).

The second way to respond is to consider the value of struggles in our lives. Isn’t it possible that those very hardships which genetic testing seeks to eradicate are the trials God wants to use to make us stronger? Would we deprive our children of the opportunity to forge their faith in the fires of pain? I’m not suggesting that we stop doing research aimed at eradicating disease, but rather that we place biblical parameters around our efforts to do so.

It is a shockingly self-centered misconception that the most loving thing we can do for our family is to keep them from pain. I fear that a large part of our desire to keep our loved ones from hardship is really a desire to insulate ourselves from the hardship of supporting them in theirs. Thus, we veil our selfishness in the guise of compassion.

Choose Whom You’ll Trust

We think we can choose what kind of lives our children will have. But really, our real choice is whether or not we will trust the God who works all things — health and disease, strength and disabilities, life and death — for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

Perhaps it is the role of true love and faith to be willing to bring children into the world, knowing that they will suffer, knowing that they will face disease and temptation, but providing them with the one true means of finding victory in these adversities: faith in Jesus Christ.