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An Irony of the Eugenics Objection to PGT-P
If coercion in reproduction is immoral, then prohibiting polygenic screening of embryos should be immoral too.
Some people oppose screening embryos during in vitro fertilization (IVF) using genetic information about complex traits. This practice is called preimplantation genetic testing for polygenic traits (PGT-P). This practice faces scrutiny for being “eugenics.” Rather than explicitly stating that all eugenics is inherently immoral, opponents will usually just provide a bunch of historical examples to give the impression that PGT-P is part of a long tradition encompassing a bunch of atrocities.
Opponents of this rhetorical move will counter that many eugenic practices—such as prohibiting sibling marriages—are morally acceptable. This was the approach of Diana Fleischman () when defending eugenics more broadly in her recent article “You're probably a eugenicist.” Another rhetorical strategy I recommended in an article entitled “Harmless Eugenics” is to respond to the accusation by asking your interlocutor to identify who exactly is harmed by embryo selection. Different approaches may work better for different audiences.
A better approach when speaking with progressives may be highlighting the eugenics objection's contradictory nature. The desire to have a healthy population is not only virtuous but shared by almost all decent people. It cannot be what is wrong with eugenics. All the most clearly unethical eugenic practices—forced sterilization, forced abortion, forced breeding, and killing people with congenital disorders—are wrong because they harm existing people and violate their rights. The coercion in eugenics is unethical, not the goal of having a healthy population.
Ironically, those who want to prohibit PGT-P advocate using coercion to prevent mothers from implanting the embryo they want in their bodies. The mother is prevented from making a fully informed reproductive choice if she is denied information relevant to her pregnancy and child. When speaking to a progressive about PGT-P specifically, I would not counter by defending eugenic practices like prohibiting sibling marriage, although that may be an appropriate line of argument when defending it more broadly. I would instead draw on the obvious parallels to pro-choice bodily autonomy arguments. It may help to downplay that both parents are victims of injustice and instead focus on the mother. Responding with questions that guide your interlocutor to your desired conclusion is more effective when persuading others, especially when dealing with controversial topics. In response to a “eugenics” argument from a progressive, I would say something like:
I don’t want to get into the semantics about whether something counts as eugenics. What matters is justice. Some eugenic practices, like coerced sterilization, are unjust because they violate women’s bodily autonomy and limit their control over their lives. If we ban PGT-P, this will limit women’s ability to make decisions about their bodies. Shouldn’t women be allowed to make informed reproductive decisions? Is it really more ethical to hide this information from her? Wouldn’t it be wrong to put a woman in jail for trying to have a healthy baby?
It is challenging to have nuanced conversations about these topics with people unfamiliar, so I would try to keep things simple and focused. However, it is worth noting that I believe that some forms of coerced eugenics are morally warranted. Legal prohibitions on sibling marriage are morally justified. IVF clinics should not be permitted to combine a brother’s sperm with a sister’s egg. Reproductive autonomy could be superseded if a future child was expected to suffer enough or inflict tremendous suffering on others. If an unhinged couple decided to invert Julian Savulescu’s Principle of Procreative Beneficence by choosing the embryo they expected to live the worst life, that might warrant a penalty as a disincentive. Many may disagree and advocate for complete reproductive autonomy. That position is reasonable and understandable, especially when the public does not fully embrace the option to enhance currently.
Of course, discussing these cases should probably be avoided. We would not want to get lost in tangents defending other eugenic practices because PGT-P is so clearly defensible. A recent survey of attitudes toward PGT-P by Meyer et al. (2023) gives reason for optimism. Even if the practice is not likely to be banned, talking to people about it is beneficial because a couple electing to use PGT-P may extend their child’s life. Researchers affiliated with Genomic Prediction created an aggregate health index from polygenic risk scores that would allow for 4 additional disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) from a batch of 10 embryos (Widen et al., 2022). Who wants their child to live 4 fewer years because genotyping the embryos might qualify as “eugenics?” The benefits of PGT-P are going to get even better. Share the good news and defend this incredible technology.