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The New Eugenics

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August 1, 2013 – Eugenics had its heyday in the early part of the twentieth century.  The theory was that selective breeding amongst humans would eventually eradicate undesirable physical traits.  Individuals and groups who possessed undesirable traits were to be forcibly sterilized to prevent their reproduction.  The theory of eugenics (literally, “good genes”) enjoyed wide popularity until it was adopted as a major facet of the Nazi program in Germany.  The Nazis perfected the more brutal methods of eugenic theory and the result was the attempted extermination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other unwanted groups.  Since then, eugenics has fallen into a predictable disrepute.  Recently however, new developments in genetic science have resurrected some of the goals of the old eugenics project.
Genetic testing has become a common tool for physicians and diagnosticians.  The general idea behind genetic testing is that there are certain genes which predispose a person to certain genetic traits, including an array of hereditary diseases.  In some cases, the discovery of these genes may give doctors an edge in fighting the diseases which will result, as is arguably the case with pre-symptomatic cystic fibrosis.  Children identified as having the gene mutation which leads to this condition have been treated with various preventative medications and therapies, aimed at reducing the severity of the condition when it surfaces.  Were this the extent of genetic testing’s influence (and were such preventative treatments shown to be beneficial, which they often are not) then there would be no cause for concern.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.
In some cases, genetic testing is used to determine an unborn child’s predisposition to a given genetic disease.  For example, an amnio-syntesis has become a virtually universal test for pregnant women to undergo.  One of the conditions which this test identifies is Down Syndrome, but as genetic science advances, in utero identifications of more and more genetic conditions will become a reality.  Parents who feel that a child with Down Syndrome will have a poorer “quality of life” than an otherwise healthy child already often choose to abort their unborn children and their number will increase as the availability of more extensive genetic testing increases.
This issue takes on a new gravity with the announcement this Summer from the United Kingdom that it hopes to be the first country in the world to officially approve mitochondrial gene therapy for use with in vitro fertilizations.  The hope is that through this technique that utilizes the genes from three separate donors (thus giving rise to the popular nomenclature: “Three Parent Baby”) various mitochondrial diseases can be eradicated.  As Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition has pointed out, this type of genetic picking and choosing is likely to transition quickly from merely removing the threat of disease to removing any undesired genetic trait.  It is not inconceivable that science will soon tie certain character traits to genetic factors as well: propensities towards violence, alcoholism or sexual promiscuity, for example.  Will parents whose unborn children have these genetic markers feel a societal responsibility to abort their children?  Some would argue that this would be a good way to preemptively purge the world of its worst offenders.  Thus the castrated giant of eugenics rises from his sterile grave.
But this is an issue not only for those who are expecting children.  It also affects those who are considering having children.  Take the case of the man who has a hereditary heart condition or the woman who has a gene mutation that results in breast cancer.  They know that any children they have will have a strong likelihood of being afflicted with the same disease as themselves.  Now they are faced with the quandary of whether to reproduce at all.  Perhaps we can make the scenario even more dubious: consider the Christian couple of the still indistinct but not unimaginable future who, through advances in genetic testing, discover that one of them possesses a recessive gene that relates to homosexual attraction.  Should they knowingly conceive a child who very well might have a genetic predisposition towards a sexual sin?  The conventional wisdom in all of the above dilemmas would say no.  It would be wrong to bring a new life into this world weighed down with the burden of disease or an undesired character trait.  We would feel guilty all of our lives if we bore children who we knew might someday develop cancer or diabetes or alcoholism.  This is the new eugenics.
There are at least two ways to respond to this issue.  The first is to ask the age old question: is this choice ours to make?  Have we really the authority to decide what determines “quality of life” either for a child or for society?  The answer for those who trust in the authority of the Scriptures is no.  The only one who can authoritatively make this choice is the divine author of the life himself: “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).
The second way to respond to this issue is to consider the value of struggles in our lives.  Isn’t it possible that those very hardships which genetic testing seeks to eradicate are the trials which make us stronger?  Would we deprive our children of the opportunity to forge their faith in the fires of pain?  It is a shockingly self-centered misconception that the most loving thing we can do for our family is to keep them from pain.  I fear that a large part of our desire to keep our loved ones from hardship is really a desire to insulate ourselves from the hardship of supporting them in theirs.  Thus we veil our selfishness in the guise of compassion.  Perhaps it is the role of true love to be willing to bring a child into the world, knowing that it will suffer, knowing that it will face disease and temptation (even genetically predetermined disease and temptation) but providing it with the one true method for finding victory in these adversities: faith in Jesus Christ.
  1. Tim Bredamus says:

    Again, amen, Andrew. Thank you! Deuteronomy 32:39 (NASB) – “See now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me; It is I who put to death and give life. I have wounded and it is I who heal.” Nothing is lost, no one is irreparably damaged with a risen Savior. No one is ugly in our Lord’s view – the ugly is beautiful because the Beautiful became ugly for our sake’s.

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