Intended for healthcare professionals

The Human Genome Project

What is immoral about eugenics?

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 13 November 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1284
  1. Arthur L Caplan, director (,
  2. Glenn McGee, associate professor,
  3. David Magnus, associate professor
  1. Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania Health System, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA
  1. Correspondence to: A Caplan

    It is a “given” in discussions of genetic engineering that no sensible person can be in favour of eugenics. The main reason for this presumption is that so much horror, misery, and mayhem have been carried out in the name of eugenics in the 20th century that no person with any moral sense could think otherwise.13 In fact, the abysmal history of murder and sterilisation undertaken in the name of race hygiene and the “improvement” of the human species again and again in this century is so overpowering that the risk of reoccurrence, sliding down what has proved time and time again to be an extremely slick, slippery slope, does seem enough to bring all ethical argument in favour of eugenics to an end.

    However, before dismissing any favourable stance towards eugenics it is important to distinguish what has happened in the past under the banner of eugenics and what might happen in the future. It is important to distinguish between genetic changes undertaken with respect to improving a group or population and genetic change that takes a single individual as its focus.

    Summary points

    The horrible abuses committed in the name of eugenics through coercive policies imposed by governments have obscured the fact that eugenic goals can be the subject of choice as well as coercion

    In the rush to map the human genome and reap the benefits of new genetic knowledge it has become commonplace to argue that eugenic goals will play no part in how new genetic knowledge is used

    The moral case against voluntary choices to advance eugenic goals by individuals or couples has not been persuasively made

    Given the power and authority granted to parents to seek to improve or better their children by environmental interventions, at least some forms of genetic selection or …

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