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How to defend embryo selection
I. Racist, Sexist, Eugenicist
Several months ago, I wrote my article “Playing Word Games With the Woke” which describes how Critical Social Justice advocates exploit morally and emotionally charged language in their rhetoric. Anyone familiar with wokeness will recognize their strange and Orwellian relationship with language. Perhaps most noticeably, they use bizarre terminology for reasons of inclusion which eventually trickles into the mainstream. Unironic use of terms like “birthing person,” “lactating person,” and “chestfeeding” elicits bewilderment from the larger population.
More concerning is their use of common terminology in idiosyncratic ways. When thinking about violence, almost everyone imagines punching, kicking, stabbing, beating, or shooting. Critical Social Justice advocates exploit this association with slogans such as “silence is violence.” If you choose not to speak up in favor of Black Lives Matter, some would regard this as a form of so-called violence. Since all decent people oppose violence, you are being indecent by not advocating for BLM. This language often does the opposite of clarifying. I’ve become convinced that terms like racist and transphobic not only fail to elucidate, they obfuscate and lead to playing ridiculous word games. I’m opposed to their use.
One of the examples of this language I decided to include in my article was “eugenics.” This is both emotionally and morally charged. When people think of eugenics, they think of gas chambers and forced sterilizations. Some terrible atrocities were committed in the name of good genes. People struggle to disassociate these atrocities from the general desire to see more people have what could be regarded as good genes.
Consider a more realistic example; selecting embryos for health is often called eugenics. Proponents of this practice sometimes retort with the reductio ad absurdumthat choosing an attractive mate is also eugenics since attractiveness indicates favorable genes. What if the opponent concedes that it’s also eugenics and therefore immoral? That’s thinking in words again. Selecting an attractive spouse is clearly okay, and coercive eugenic practices like ethnic cleansing are clearly wrong. Both of these facts are true regardless of how a particular word is defined in English. The tendency would be to want to insist that selecting an attractive mate isn’t eugenics, but that’s tangential to the question of its ethicality.
The critical point is that a debate about what qualifies as “eugenics” is semantic. Maybe picking an attractive spouse doesn’t qualify. But, surely, not marrying your cousin because your offspring will have an increased risk of having congenital disorders is eugenic. Rather than having an incredibly long semantic debate, it would seem more important to say what is wrong with this particular case of eugenics. In the case of forced sterilization, it’s not necessarily wanting a less physically disabled population that’s a problem. It’s a willingness to violate people’s rights and harm them to achieve the goal. With eugenics, the problem is coercion.
Others have recognized this semantic confusion in the case of eugenics too. Veit et al. (2021) describe the phenomenon well. They say, “[t]o call a person a ‘eugenicist’ or deem a practice ‘eugenics’ is often accepted as a substitute for an argument. According to the authors, “[t]urning this issue into a semantic debate won’t lead us toward a solution, but rather away from it.”
II. Coercion-Free Eugenics
It is possible to have genetic enhancement without coercion. Most notably, this occurs when selecting embryos for implantation during in vitro fertilization (IVF). If the mother cares about the likelihood of successful implantation and the future health of the child, she may undergo preimplantation genetic testing for aneuploidies (PGT-A), structural chromosomal rearrangement (PGT-SR), and monogenic diseases (PGT-M).
These practices don’t face as much criticism as a new technological development made possible by the falling cost of genetic technology and increased scientific knowledge in genomics. This new form of screening, called preimplantation genetic testing for polygenic disorders (PGT-P), has been performed on very few people. The first child to be born after PGT-P was Aurea Smigrodzki in the summer of 2020. Another recent high-profile case was that of the Collins family, who selected their child based on physical and mental health.
Many traits that parents would care about are polygenic, meaning that they are affected by many genes rather than just one. Appearance, height, intelligence, educational attainment, and personality are all polygenic. PGT-P opens the gateway to genetically enhancing brilliant, healthy, and happy children. The limitations to returns currently are financial, scientific, and technological. However, we have strong reasons to think that massive gains across different areas are possible within the next 50 years.
In the area of intelligence, it’s likely that we will be able to produce people smarter than anyone who has ever lived. The social, political, and economic implications of this are profound and far-reaching. I try to speculate on when we will see these advances and their possible implications in my article “America in 2072: A Society Stratified by Genetic Enhancement.” In my conclusion, I emphasize the importance of effective altruists devising rhetoric to defend this practice:
It is an ethical imperative to ensure that parents can at least have offspring that are healthy and happy. Genetic enhancement has not yet garnered public attention and is in a precarious situation. If PGT-P is banned, many people may live substantially more depressing and unhealthy lives. Effective altruists should support medical technology for genetic enhancement and develop strategies and rhetoric to prevent possible bans. Future altruists will likely need to find effective arguments to prevent hostility between populations.
Genetic enhancement is defended by some philosophers, but it currently lacks mainstream attention. At some point, this will become a major political issue that could be discussed in Congress or during presidential debates. How exactly the issue will be considered politically has some interesting implications. I explain in my article the reasons for possible bipartisan opposition:
The most unpredictable element in the advancement of genetic enhancement may be the legal concerns. Will Republicans reject this process on account of it behaving like God and discarding embryos—who many regards as a human with the right to life? From this perspective, iterated embryo selection and massive multiple embryo selection could be regarded as a massacre, amplifying the number of abortion murders by perhaps as much as an order of magnitude. Will Democrats reject the process on account of unfairness? Or will they defend it as an instance of a woman’s right to choose? There is a real chance of bipartisan rejection of this sort of technology.
While there is a large and dedicated pro-life voter base among Republicans, there doesn’t seem to be much anti-IVF sentiment. Even among pro-lifers, I suspect most have less moral concern for embryos than fetuses. According to Gallup, only 22% of Republicans believe that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances, and 67% think it should be illegal only under certain circumstances, while 10% believe it should be legal under any circumstances. However, 70% of Republicans identify as pro-life, and only 23% identify as pro-choice. Among Democrats, those numbers are 39% and 54%, respectively. While it may be the case that opposition comes primarily from Republicans, it also seems many progressive-minded people will oppose genetic enhancement based on fairness and concerns about eugenics. I suspect this rhetoric may be more threatening to the legal status of the practice. There is a nearly universal desire not to be like the Nazis.
III. The Need for Rhetoric
Scientists and philosophers must make lengthy technical critiques to address possible objections to theories. It would be nice if politicians and pundits were made to do the same. However, we are in a Democracy in which people invest little time into careful deliberation over their preferred policy choices. A substantial portion of the population merely reacts negatively to whatever the other major party is doing. Quite literally, many Republicans would oppose a bill merely based on the fact that a Democrat proposed it, and vice versa.
Since political decisions are contingent on public opinion, it is essential to have both arguments and rhetoric in the form of slogans and persuasive non-technical arguments. There is a significant intellectual niche for someone who wants to create pro-enhancement rhetoric at a level that laypeople can understand. Presently, the people interested in embryo selection are not only intellectuals but a select group familiar with genetics. Furthermore, this group has personality traits that lead them to embrace the conclusions rather than dismiss them as disgusting, trivial, or fantastic speculation. Another strong filter is that many people with this knowledge are unlikely to want to discuss this issue because of intense social pressure against being a eugenicist.
I want to propose possibly effective rhetoric, even if that means using emotionally and morally charged rhetoric. However, I am constraining myself from being misleading or engaging in character disparagement. If I were more machiavellian, I would recommend following in the footsteps of the highly influential and successful Critical Social Justice movement. Namely, attribute dissent to nefariousness. For example, “you oppose genetic enhancement because you want more sick babies” or “you want to control women’s reproductive choices because you are a misogynist.” Attributing a motive also can be persuasive. For example, “you oppose enhancement because it can help the less fortunate, threatening your privilege.” This is a bad approach. Not in the sense of being ineffective, but in the sense that it’s not virtuous to argue like this.
It will likely be untenable to deny the accusation of being a eugenicist. Genetic enhancement is the pursuit of “good” genes. In this case, good genes are conducive to good health, mental wellbeing, moral behavior, and intelligence. I have to grant that some people think that “good genes” are characterized by an absolute lack of Jewish ancestry, for example. This doesn’t seem to be what people mean when discussing embryo selection. That may be because it would not make sense for them to focus on this practice. All the embryos that could be selected will be related to the mother and father. If someone wanted fewer Jewish genes, they wouldn’t like widespread embryo selection; they would like to ban Jewish people from having children.
Embryo selection advocates want genes that permit physical and mental wellbeing. The Nazis cared about that, but they also cared about racial purity. So, in some sense, both want “good genes.” But advocates for embryo selection don’t want to commit genocide to preserve Aryan racial purity. The fact that both Nazis and advocates have conceptions of “good genes” is an incredibly tenuous association. Analogously, progressives and Nazis believe in creating a “good society.” Still, everyone recognizes that having a conception of a good society does not make you even remotely similar to a Nazi.
Furthermore, most everyone acknowledges that there are at least some “good genes” in less politically charged conversations. For example, nobody would level these accusations of Hitlerian thinking at someone that says, “I have great eye-sight. I think I got it from my mom and dad.” This person is making a value judgment on a trait and expressing that they believe it’s inherited. The implication is that some genes lead to good outcomes. Here, it is perfectly fine, but when discussing social or political issues, believing in “good genes” will be met with unwanted comparisons.
Since you may have to adopt the eugenics label, you might look for ways to mitigate the stigma. In the article “Can ‘eugenics’ be defended?”, the authors highlight the point that “everyone who considers pre-natal testing justifiable, or who thinks women should be free to weigh genetic information in the selection of a spouse or a sperm donor is a eugenicist.” Another example of a eugenic practice would be prohibitions on sex between siblings. One could object that this should be prohibited because incest is traumatic rather than dysgenic, but you could respond by asking if they would permit an IVF clinic to create an embryo from a sister’s egg and brother’s sperm. Hopefully, they would not because they know incest is not conducive to a healthy baby. This approach forces someone to either accept that eugenics is okay sometimes or condemn a bunch of actions and policies almost universally regarded as morally acceptable.
IV. Defending “Harmless Eugenics”
Another approach would be to say that we advocate for a certain form of eugenics. Unfortunately, “liberal eugenics” and “new eugenics” are likely insufficient to ward off the stigma. “Compassionate eugenics” is an improvement, but people might misinterpret this as an endorsement of heinous acts in the name of compassion. For example, it may give the wrong idea that someone thinks forced sterilization or involuntary euthanasia is compassionate.
I think I have conceived of a better term. After a Google search, there are very few instances of people using the expression “harmless eugenics.” This is how I believe defenders of genetic enhancement should refer to the practice of embryo selection. When discussing the issue typically, they should use a term such as “genetic enhancement.” However, they will inevitably face the accusation of being a eugenicist. When this occurs, I believe the move will be to retort with something like, “the only type of eugenics I advocate for is harmless eugenics.” I think “it’s still eugenics” is a weak response, and so the temptation will be to try to find harm in the practice of embryo selection. This isn't easy.
Someone could object that the discarded embryos are harmed. The pro-life objection would be that the embryo is harmed by being deprived of the right to exist. This argument diverges into complicated philosophical discussions of personhood, existence, consciousness, and the semantic use of harm. That discussion is for another day. If someone is pro-choice, it would seem odd to object that discarding an embryo is harmful. One could argue that it is somewhat wrong to discard an embryo and a single abortion is not particularly bad, but killing a bunch of embryos surpasses a threshold and becomes immoral. This opinion is likely highly uncommon, but I have had someone tell me they get the intuition that something is wrong with producing a bunch of life and throwing it away.
Someone could object that the resulting child is harmed by being selected. If this is true, it isn’t easy to see by what criteria they are hurt. Under this view, genetic prediction couldn’t merely be inadequate; it would have to be worse than randomly picking one as would occur with in vivo conception. I’ve seen the viewpoint that our limited knowledge constrains us from achieving high returns, but I have not seen anyone say that genetic testing will result in worse outcomes on average. I don’t think an uninformed person would make that strong claim, but I don’t think someone familiar with genetics would make that claim either.
A line of rhetoric appealing to progressives could be to “trust the science” or “trust the experts” when they question the plausibility and safety of selection. You could rhetorically frame the objections to the validity of genetic research as science denial. This is a bit of demagoguery. However, it’s not deceptive; rejecting good science based on moral beliefs is “science denial.”
A stronger objection would be that parents might select superficial traits, like blue eyes, neglecting other important characteristics. I do not know if there is a correlation between superficial traits and physical health within the same family. If there is no correlation, it is akin to randomness. If there is a positive correlation, this objection is weakened. If there is a negative correlation, then people may make their children less healthy than they otherwise would have been.
This is a legitimate concern, especially in the case of height, where extremely tall men suffer health consequences. I am doubtful that most parents would make large sacrifices to their children’s health to improve aesthetic appearance, but undoubtedly there would be some. Jonathan Anomaly discusses these sorts of concerns in his book Creating Future People. I see this as an argument in favor of regulation rather than prohibition of the practice altogether.
A persuasive analogy is to compare embryo selection to a dice game. If you have six embryos, is it reasonable to believe selecting an embryo via a roll of the die is better than selecting them with cutting-edge technology and scientific research? If you want to roll the die. Would you still want to if the best available science told you one of the embryos had a genetic disorder and would likely be severely physically disabled? Imagine you rolled it, and it landed on the embryo with the disorder. Would you really go through with implanting that embryo? A slogan that could allude to this argument would be “parents shouldn’t be forced to play dice with their children’s health.”
One might retort that the physically disabled have lives worth living. I agree. But if you asked me if we should increase the number of physically disabled people when we could increase the number of able-bodied people instead, the choice is clear. People do not hold environmental interventions to a similar standard. I have never heard someone object to treating kidney stones on the basis that life with kidney stones is worth living.
While one could try to argue that the parents are harmed, this doesn’t seem very convincing. Parents want to see their children be healthy and happy. Many parents are willing to spend money on less effective interventions in the hope of their child being more successful. If you argue that companies like Genomic Prediction give insufficient returns relative to the cost, you will need to put a price on reductions in cancer risk, heart disease, and diabetes. Who is to say that a 10% reduction in breast cancer for one’s child isn’t worth that much?
If someone doesn’t hold other environmental interventions to the same standard, I would argue they are biased in their evaluation. A particularly egregious example is colleges that engage in negligent advertising, suggesting students will undergo a life-changing transformation without the empirical evidence to warrant their claims (Parrhesia, 2022). Should it be prohibited to send one’s children to an expensive college that doesn’t actually achieve its lofty stated goals?
The better argument is that the parents are harmed by not being allowed to make a choice. This is a restriction on their freedom. If we wanted to be persuasive to progressives, we could highlight that the woman’s choice is being restricted. For example, we could say, “I support a woman’s right to choose health for her child,” or “I support women’s rights.” Pro-choice progressives will likely recognize the parallel and see that this infringes on women’s rights to make reproductive choices.
V. Inequality as Harm
One of the most common objections will be that embryo selection results in inequality and is unfair. If advocates of embryo selection use the term “harmless eugenics,” they will make opponents feel the need to couch fairness objections in the form of harm, possibly objecting that unenhanced children were harmed. They will likely not refer to other children as “unenhanced” but say something like “normal” because the term enhanced concedes that there are advantages conferred. Also, people sometimes dislike making interpersonal value comparisons.
Once again, I think a good argument is the environmental intervention test. Are other children harmed by the existence of above-average schools, neighborhoods, parents, and hospitals? Some may believe so, but they would not think the solution is to abolish all the favorable environmental interventions. Instead, they would advocate for bringing everyone up to the highest standard. People who want equality should support genetic enhancement to improve outcomes.
A great comparison that would hit on progressive values is vaccines. For most progressives, vaccines are an unadulterated good. They would not raise criticism of them, lest they be “anti-vax.” But the arguments are parallel. These are both health-increasing interventions that result in disparity. If they object that they only want society-specific comparisons, ask if they would ever advocate for prohibiting vaccines within a single nation because only a minority had access. Hardly any sane person would.
If an embryo-selected child being born is bad then it would seem like removing the enhanced traits should be good. This sort of coercive environmental intervention to achieve equality à la Harrison Bergeron’s Handicapper General seems very bad though. An example would be feeding pills to a child to reduce his IQ or health because his parents chose to select illegally. If I reverse the scenario, there is near universal agreement; if a child is born sickly, it is morally good to improve their wellbeing with environmental interventions.
Those familiar with genetics know genetic variation creates disparities in traits. Some people are not only healthy but also intelligent and attractive for largely genetic reasons. Perhaps even worse from a progressive point of view, many traits that we care about are additively heritable. Smart parents will disproportionately have smart children. I struggle to see why a 130-IQ child conceived in vivo entering the world is good, but a 130-IQ child conceived in vitro with the help of Genomic Prediction is bad. The outcome is the same.
An important question for an egalitarian is to what level we want to achieve. If we want everyone to be as smart as the smartest person alive, we should allow enhancement to get closer. If we wanted everyone to be exactly average, we should maybe force parents to select the embryo closest to the population average. For above-average parents, this would often mean genetic disablement. For below-average parents, this would often mean enhancement. There will likely always be people conceived in vivo, and at least one of these people will be intellectually disabled. I would hope no one would think we should only be allowed to produce intellectually disabled children for reasons of equality.
Education, medicine, parenting, and embryo selection are all tools for achieving desired goals. Tools can create good and bad outcomes. Tools can also create equality. If you think we shouldn’t use a tool to create good outcomes for reasons of equality, but simultaneously think we shouldn’t use the tool to create equality, my guess is that the issue is really with the tool. I think the real objection is the use of this specific tool and that it is the result of intuitions about tampering with genes and the historical legacy of eugenics. I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t actually have inequality concerns, just that they have inconsistent beliefs that are less compelling upon closer examination. When pressed to be consistent, I think they will side against inequality and in favor of health.
Ultimately, I believe the rhetorical and political battle will be won by those advocating for genetic enhancement to have healthier, happier, more intelligent children. The larger population will see the healthier lives of those fortunate enough to be genetically enhanced. Since parents strongly desire to see their children succeed, their ideological impulses will be overwhelmed by their love for their children. While we may win in the end, legal restrictions pose a threat that could prevent tens or hundreds of millions of children from being enhanced in the meantime. Hopefully, these arguments and rhetoric help to ensure that doesn’t happen.
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