Intended for healthcare professionals


Eugenics debate

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 25 March 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:873

Eugenics principles are there

  1. Rupert Suckling (, specialist registrar public health.
  1. Rotherham Health Authority, Rotherham, South Yorkshire SG5 2QU
  2. Institute of Genetics Education, Santa Fe, NM 87505, USA
  3. The Surgery, Leeds LS12 5AZ

    EDITOR—Eugenics is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the science of improving the (especially human) population by controlled breeding for desirable inheritable characteristics. Stated in this way there is no doubt that the coercion of controlling breeding together with the subjectivity of desirable characteristics makes eugenics morally difficult to defend.

    Caplan is really putting the case for gene manipulation.1 Manipulation of somatic cells has been considered to pose no new ethical challenges, but manipulation of germ cells raises ethical issues as an alteration in the germ cell line affects future generations. The same criticisms can be levelled against manipulation of germ cell genes as were made against eugenics. Coercion is still a problem. Although we hope that parents can take decisions in the best interests of their child, this cannot be guaranteed and is similar to the problem with society coercing individuals to make inappropriate choices. The child has the right to be treated as an autonomous individual.

    The social dimension of the subjectivity of perfection should not be forgotten. If society decides that a particular trait is beneficial this does not mean that it is morally right—for example, colour of skin. Admittedly, however, some traits may be globally regarded as beneficial.

    Can equality be guaranteed by a programme of social initiatives to compensate for differences in biological endowment? It is always possible that rich …

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