“Eugenics is a dirty word, most commonly associated with racist profiling, or Nazi experiments. But the time has come to rethink our attitude.” So suggests Madhumita Murgia, writing for The Telegraph. How should we define eugenics? Is eugenics necessarily a bad thing because of its chequered past? Why now should we rethink one of the most controversial theories in modern history?
Well, after months of discussion in the government Houses and elsewhere, the UK is due to become the first country to legalise 3-parent IVF (in vitro fertilisation). Yes, (some) children of the future will be the product of – and have inherited – the genetic material from more than two people. Why? To prevent the inheritance of mitochondrial diseases, which include muscle wastage, diabetes, deafness and epilepsy. How does it work? The two parents’ nucleus’s are removed from the embryo, leaving behind the ‘diseased’ mitochondrial part, and inserted into a ‘disease free’ donor embryo, which has its own nucleus’ removed. I’m no scientist. Here’s a diagram showing one example of how it works, which the BBC were given by an actual scientist:
The new healthy embryo is then used in a standard IVF procedure, and 9 months later, in theory, a healthy baby is born. As a side note, with the vast majority of genetic material contained in the nucleus, the donor mitochondria only contains a tiny – though significant – fraction of the healthy embryo’s (and future person’s!) genetic material.
In any case, it is easy to see why Murgia went on to claim “this is essentially eugenics, the science of improving the genetic quality of the human population.” With this process (and years ago with PGD for that matter) we are literally improving the genetic material of future generations, and some would say, playing God. Is this a bad thing? Some would argue that national healthcare is something that should bypass/transcend religious interest. Others vehemently argue against interference with the sacred act of procreation.
With regards to genetic improvement, Murgia believes the time has come to drop the stigma attached to ‘eugenics’: “[3-person IVF] can also be understood as manipulating the genome in order to solve human health crises, such as sickle cell anaemia, and so give happier and longer lives to children otherwise doomed before birth.[…] So for the sake of those who need it the most, we must be brave enough push the frontiers of present-day human knowledge into territories unknown.”
Before we go throwing around the word ‘eugenics’, we must settle on how we define the term. Somewhat fitting in with Murgia’s understanding, founder of the eugenics movement (in its modern form) and cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton’s (pictured below) 1883 definition succinctly described eugenics as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.”
While Murgia is correct to an extent in suggesting 3-person IVF is a form of eugenics, this is not the whole story. Equally important for eugenicists was the long-term implications. Historically, eugenics is a modernist social philosophy based on scientific theory, popular in a number of countries predominantly – though by no means exclusively – during the interwar period. Eugenic ideology is underpinned by the notion that man’s hereditary qualities can be artificially improved and, crucially, that science can control the future of human evolution. While a central of characteristic of eugenic ideology in the past was the furtherance of human evolution, Murgia’s understanding could arguably be more accurately described as a type of preventative genetic therapy.
If 3-person IVF is not eugenics reborn, it could certainly be viewed in decades to come – along with now well-established techniques such as pre-natal screening and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) – as the scientific catalyst that led to the rebirth of eugenics as a social philosophy. Eugenics aside, 3-person IVF provides us with the opportunity to prevent future human suffering. For many, this is reason enough to celebrate this remarkable breakthrough in the science of human genetics.
Madhumita Murgia, ‘Eugenics need not be a dirty word – instead, it could be lifesaving technology’, The Telegraph ( 26 October 2015), [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/11956083/Eugenics-isnt-a-dirty-word.-Instead-could-be-lifesaving-technology.html].
James Gallagher, ‘Three-person baby details announced,’ BBC NEWS (27 February 2014), [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-26367220].