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The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities.

Peter Padfield, in his biography of Heinrich Himmler, Hitler's henchman and head of the dreaded S.S., gives the following disturbing anecdote:

In December 1935 he founded Lebensborn e.V. - literally the Fount of Life Society - to care particularly for unmarried mothers of good blood made pregnant by SS or police officers, and to allow them to have their children in private. These were then placed with SS families . . . Himmler saw Lebensborn primarily as a contribution to the genetic selection for the Herrenvolk - the master race - the opposite, positive pole of the sterilization laws ordering the forced sterilization of the physically ill and physically deformed, including blind and deaf - which had been enacted six months after the Party came to power - and the plans in preparation to drive out Jews and other minderwertigen "inferior" peoples.(1)

Apparently no one ever had the courage to tell the beady-eyed, dark-haired, unathletic, and heavy-set Himmler that he himself looked nothing like the Nordic ideal he was so strong in espousing.

This chilling scenario is bound to come to mind when one thinks about the topic of eugenics (literally "good birth"). There are two components to this ideal: positive eugenics, where certain inherited traits are encouraged, and negative, where other traits are discouraged. The Nazis, with their S.S. "stud farms" and their extermination camps, put both of these into horrendous practice.

But one should not let these extremes blind one to the fact that the desire to have control over human genetics is quite powerful. In his new book, The Lives to Come, Philip Kitcher focuses on the challenge that the new and increasing knowledge of our own genetic structure presents. Kitcher, professor of philosophy at the University of California at San Diego, was invited by the Library of Congress to study the ethical implications of the multi-billion dollar Human Genome Project. His book is a helpful guide to the layperson on this project, but it is primarily interested in examining the moral legitimacy of the enterprise of choosing our descendants. "The loss of genetic innocence," he writes, "imposes new responsibilities . . . The explosion of molecular knowledge will make some form of eugenics inevitable."

According to Kitcher, eugenics occurs whenever there is an intention to affect the kinds of people who will be born. "As a theoretical discipline," he writes, "eugenics responds to our convictions that it is irresponsible not to do what can be done to prevent deep human suffering, yet it must face the challenge of showing that its claims about the values of lives are not the arrogant judgments of an elite group." Four types of decisions need to be made:

1. Selection - What group of individuals are participating in these procedures?

2. Choice vs. compulsion - Are the people having or not having children doing so because of their own choosing?

3. Characteristics - What traits are discouraged or encouraged?

4. Scientific Knowledge - How reputable are the data?

The Nazis violated all four of these: they discriminated against particular populations, they used compulsion, they had absurd views regarding "racial purity," and they were inaccurate in their scientific knowledge of genetics. It is this chilling scenario that many rightly fear, due to its assault on human dignity.

But Kitcher points out that stating that eugenics is wrong in and of itself implies that unplanned populations are preferable to planned, and this too involves compulsion - don't tamper with nature. Should such debilitating genetic diseases as Nesch-Nylan syndrome - which causes mental retardation, severe physical pain, and a compulsion for self-mutilation - be allowed to continue merely because it is "natural"? He then defends his own version of what he calls "utopian eugenics." Kitcher argues that it is possible to have a rational and compassionate public policy, aimed at eliminating certain genetic defects. This would involve open access and freedom of choice. Genetic information should be made available equally for all citizens. It attempts to maximize individual reproductive freedom and education with public discussion about responsible procreation. "Endeavors to stop the birth of people who would lead lives of very low quality can be combined with respect and deep emotional attachments to those who are born . . ." he writes. "So long as prospective and retrospective evaluations are inspired by people and their suffering, humans lives will not be treated as manufactured goods."

This is a very humanistic book. While the term "utopian eugenics" is an unfortunate one, since it implies a pie-in-the-sky attitude, Kitcher is to be commended for attempting to focus public attention on an issue that will become increasingly contentious in the near future. Are we as a society capable of using this information wisely and compassionately, or will the specter of future Himmlers come to haunt us? As Kitcher rightly points out, we have left the garden of genetic innocence.


1. Peter Padfield, Himmler (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990), pp. 166-167.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism, Inc.
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Author:Madigan, Timothy J.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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