The Return of Eugenics

2 April 2016
The Spectator

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It’s comforting now to think of eugenics as an evil that sprang from the blackness of Nazi hearts. We’re familiar with the argument: some men are born great, some as weaklings, and both pass the traits on to their children. So to improve society, the logic goes, we must encourage the best to breed and do what we can to stop the stupid, sick and malign from passing on their defective genes. This was taken to a genocidal extreme by Hitler, but the intellectual foundations were laid in England. And the idea is now making a startling comeback.
A hundred years ago the eugenic mission involved a handful of crude tools: bribing the ‘right’ people to have larger families, sterilising the weakest. Now stunning advances in science are creating options early eugenicists could only dream about. Today’s IVF technology already allows us to screen embryos for inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis. But soon parents will be able to check for all manner of traits, from hair colour to character, and choose their ‘perfect’ child.
The era of designer babies, long portrayed by dystopian novelists and screenwriters, is fast arriving. According to Hank Greely, a Stanford professor in law and biosciences, the next couple of generations may be the last to accept pot luck with procreation. Doing so, he adds, may soon be seen as downright irresponsible. In his forthcoming book The End of Sex, he explains a brave new world in which mothers will be given a menu with various biological options. But even he shies away from the word that sums all this up. For Professor Greely, and almost all of those in the new bioscience, eugenics is never mentioned, as if to avoid admitting that history has swung full circle.

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