The Baby Superstore

Gene therapy could enable the rich to buy their way out of society

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th February 1997.

Is Dr Watson a Nazi? In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, the Nobel Prize-winning gene sleuth and author of The Double Helix suggested that if a gene that determines homosexuality could be found, a women should be able to choose whether or not to abort a foetus that carried it. In the Independent he argued that other perceived imperfections which might be genetically determined – such as dyslexia, shortness or poor musical ability – should also be permitted to inform a woman’s choice.

His comments were received with fury. Dominic Lawson, the Sunday Telegraph’s editor, contended that Watson and his ilk “have become too big for their DNA”. In yesterday’s Telegraph, Katherine O’Hanlan of Stamford University said that abortions of the sort James Watson endorsed would amount to “eugenics … reminiscent of the 1940s in Germany”.

At first sight, she’s right. New gene technologies, if they develop as James Watson expects, will grant us the power to pursue – and much more effectively – Hitler’s aim of eliminating what he considered to be undesirable characteristics from the population. Thereafter, however, her comparison falls flat.

What Hitler – and Plato – advocated, was the restriction of personal reproductive choice. What Watson espouses is precisely the opposite. Indeed, the liberal philosopher Professor Philip Kitcher has suggested that interfering with parental decisions about which foetuses to keep and which to lose would amount to “centrally-directed eugenics programmes” comparable to those of Nazi Germany.

Part of the problem with the new biotechnologies is that there are so few meaningful precedents to help us address the choices with which they confront us. Many of the questions they raise are new ones, and we come unstuck the moment we try to match them with old answers. According to my dictionary, eugenics means “race improvement by judicious mating.” This is clearly not what James Watson is talking about. Future “race improvement” requires no shrieking Gestapo officers insisting that we choose one mate rather than another; instead, some geneticists propose, existing couples might one day be able to choose genes for their offspring much as they choose their furnishings today.

Dr Watson argues that the termination of “genetically defective” foetuses is good not only for parents, but also for the prospective children. Indeed, he suggests that once effective gene testing or gene manipulation become available, children born with genetic defects might sue their parents for having brought them into the world. People choosing to abort and start again, in other words, would merely be seeking the best future for their children, much as they do when deciding to send them to public school – an option which the Telegraph presumably endorses.

So is there an ethical difference between choosing your children’s genes and choosing to educate them privately? One of the reasons why I find the new genetics so terrifying is that I don’t believe there is.

Assuming – as I think we can – that the new technologies are likely only to be available to the few who can afford them, then, like public school, they will confer an advantage on some people at the expense of others, irrespective of merit. Just as the escape hatch of the public school enables the wealthiest and most influential people in the country to ignore the under-funding of state education, future genetic screening or gene therapy could allow them to buy their way out of concern for the social and environmental factors which contribute to poor health. Indeed it’s not hard to imagine a future in which only the rich could – through gene technology – escape from the genetic effects of increasing exposure to such pollutants as pesticide residues and radioactive waste.

So the prospective gene technologies have the capacity to petrify, even more effectively than public school, society’s heritable inequity. But there might also be more immediate effects. The moment at which something can be fixed is the moment at which it becomes widely perceived as broken: the possibility of eliminating purportedly gay foetuses will surely contribute to the public disparagement of homosexuality.

It is also possible to picture a world in which those whose genomes have been selected or enhanced could feel themselves set apart from those who have not been manipulated. With some justification, the genetic elect could claim that they did not share a common humanity with the genetically unscreened, and the racism, sexism and classism we suffer from today would find a new, and potentially even more virulent outlet.

The dangers with which Dr Watson’s genetic choices confront us emerge not from the threat of a coercive state, but from the less fashionable bogey of mass consumerism. What is good for the individual may be disastrous for society. It’s not eugenics – or not as we know it – and it’s not Nazism. But it’s still wrong.