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Reader Response: Eugenics is bad, actually...
Elizabeth Lima writes a critical response to 'Embryo Selection: Healthy Babies vs Bad Arguments'
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Written by Elizabeth Lima.
I recently read an article on this platform arguing that couples pursuing IVF should not be judged for choosing embryos based not only (as is already common) on genetic markers for risk of catastrophic disabilities and disease, but also on traits such as IQ. The thrust of the article was that such decisions are not eugenics, as the religious fanatics (me) protest, but merely a high tech version of every parent’s duty: choosing what’s best for your child. But the comments (including some by the author) quickly ripped off that mask - arguing that this type of parental choice was indeed an act of eugenics, which is good actually.
My friends. My children. I cannot believe we have to say this again: Eugenics is bad.
After responding to several of my incredulous comments, the author graciously offered to publish a Christian rebuttal. Better minds than mine already provided that - about a hundred years ago, when the first eugenicists made Progressive arguments for why it was right and just to sterilise the unfit, breed the fit and abort the sick and poor. But hey, I like a good arg. So, leaving aside the question of whether genetic testing even works, let’s break this down.
Human life is sacred.
Y’all asked for the Christian perspective, so there had to be an article of faith somewhere and this is it. I can’t prove this with science or reason alone — for me, it’s as glaringly, undeniably self-evident as the existence of God and my love for my children.
Man was made in the image of God. By a God who loved us enough to create us in the first place and who, even after becoming intimately acquainted with our sins and weaknesses, loved us enough to live as one of us — as one of the weak, powerless and poor — and to die for us on a cross. And if God, who is perfect, can love us unconditionally in spite of our failings, how much more should we, who are imperfect, love each other in spite of (because of) our shared weakness?
I have no other argument to make here, so if you disagree, just come with me for the sake of the arg: Human life is sacred. Human life is lovable. Human life is worth protecting.
For any human life to be precious, all human life must be precious.
The problem with loving something or someone is that you can’t do it halfway. You can’t love your spouse except when they chew with their mouth open. You can’t love your toddler except when they throw a tantrum. You can’t love God except when He calls you to do something hard. If you break love, which is infinite, into integers, the whole becomes less than the sum of its parts, and quickly dwindles to zero.
It’s the same with human life. Human life can’t be precious if only the smart or healthy or beautiful are precious. It has to be precious intrinsically — precious without regard for condition or circumstance. To put it more practically, is that embryo you implanted because it had no genetic disease markers still precious after she becomes a paraplegic in a car accident? Is the decorated Marine still precious when he develops PTSD that makes it impossible to hold down a job? Of course they are. Because their qualities and accomplishments didn’t make them precious in the first place — their humanity did.
If you’re reading this as one of the “fit” (I’ll use the early eugenicists’ language just for fun), this feels like a big ask. I’m strong, healthy and smart — why should I have to care for the weak? Obviously I have a Christian answer for you, but here’s a self-interested one: you were once one of the “unfit” and you could become one again at any time. Accidents happen. Diseases manifest. People age. When (not if) you become unfit, you’ll want someone to care for you the way I’m telling you to care for your brothers and sisters today.
Of course it’s good to promote human flourishing by mitigating disability, curing disease, and maximising human potential.
We agree on this, surely.
But you do that by eliminating weakness, not the weak.
The eradication of polio in the United States was a herculean effort by a selfless team of scientists and public health officials whose work saved millions of children from a truly horrific disease, and saved the American public from the burden of caring for children who needed intensive medical treatment and often went on to have life-long disabilities. The story is a testament to the power of science and progress when deployed toward human flourishing.
The (near) eradication of Down Syndrome in Iceland was very different. Instead of curing this disability, Icelanders chose to abort nearly every child who was identified in utero as having an increased risk of Down Syndrome. Not every child with Down Syndrome — every child at risk of Down Syndrome. Like the US with polio, Iceland is now enjoying the economic and emotional benefits of not caring for children and adults with this serious condition. But they didn’t do it by eradicating the disability - they did it by eradicating the disabled. And in the process they signaled very clearly to people living with Down Syndrome and any other serious illness or disability that their life was not worth living. That they were not worth loving.
The grand Progressive project of promoting human flourishing through science and public policy is a good one. But the movement rots from the inside when it prioritises the advancement of the strong over the basic human dignity - the sacred human life - of the weak.
A person’s a person, no matter how small.
At this point, the more reasonable among you are thinking, “Sure, fine, whatever. But why are we talking about this? Nobody’s advocating mass-murder of the unfit. We’re just saying they shouldn’t be born in the first place.”
To which I say: Human life begins at the fertilisation of a woman’s egg by a man’s sperm, creating an entirely new physical and metaphysical Thing™, with its own unique DNA and a life that is separate from, though dependent on, its mother’s.
Again, smarter people than I have explained this better, but here’s my humble attempt:
We all (well, everyone I care to argue with) agree that a newborn baby is a precious, loveable, living human person. My argument is: nothing happens to that human baby between the moment of fertilisation and the moment its mother first holds it in her arms that changes the metaphysical reality of what it is. During that period, the Thing changes dramatically — but it doesn’t change from a piranha into a person. It changes from a small, undeveloped person to a bigger, less undeveloped person. Kind of like what happens after it’s born. For my fellow visual learners, its growth curve starts out very steep and gradually flattens out — but it doesn’t break.
To put it more concretely - if the Thing doesn’t become a person at fertilisation, when does it?
When the Thing gets a heartbeat? If that’s the case, then the 6-month-old I met at a children’s hospital who was born with half a heart and relied on a machine to pump his blood until he was eligible for a heart transplant isn’t a person. His mother would beg to differ.
When it has all its limbs? What about amputees?
When it passes the (mythical / time-and-place dependent) point of viability? My son (now a thriving three year old) was born 9 days before the point of viability in the country I live in. He’s a person now, and he was a person then.
When 51% of it has passed through the birth canal? Common sense balks at that one.
Or is it, as the Romans practiced, after it’s born when its father looks at it and chooses to acknowledge paternity?
If this all sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. Trying to pinpoint the exact moment the Thing becomes a person can’t be done because it was always a person. Just as it will always be a person, no matter what disaster, disease or decrepitude may befall it after it’s born.
To put it more simply, I’ll quote one of my favorite writers (but not tag her because she hates getting dragged into these discussions): Do you really want to be in the business of rounding down on human life?
It’s all eugenics.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, this next step will be like falling off a log: It’s all eugenics. Abortion. Hormonal birth control (which can act as an abortifacient). IVF. The sterilisation of the sick, criminal and poor. Medical science that prioritizes the invention of artificial wombs as millions of human mothers die from preventable complications of pregnancy and childbirth (this predates Dobbs, folks). Economic policies that make it impossible for the average person to have a family without risking destitution.
Each of these evils calls itself progress. Several drape themselves in the mantle of science - or choice. But under the mask, every one of them denies the basic, blinding truth that human life - all human life - is sacred, precious and loved.
I’d like to close with a quote from the incomparable G.K. Chesterton, who is my superior both in arguments and appetite. Apologies if I don’t get it exactly right, but - as Gilbert himself once said after misquoting Dickens - when you digest something as thoroughly as I have digested these words, it often comes out different on the other side:
I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the love of a mother for her daughter’s halo of curls is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If science and progress and choice are against it, science and progress and choice must go down. With the golden head of one she-urchin in my kitchen I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because my daughter is unconditionally loved, she must be unconditionally loveable. Because she is unconditionally loveable, no change to her circumstances or condition can make her unlovable. Because no circumstance or condition can make her unlovable, no circumstance or condition can make any other child unlovable. Because nothing can make a child unlovable, all children must be loved. Because all children must be loved, all children must be cared for. Because all children must be cared for, the strong must help the weak. Because the strong must help the weak, Christ’s Kingdom shall prevail. That little urchin with the gold hair, whom I have just watched pouring Cheerios all over my floor, she shall not be discarded and disrespected in the name of science and progress; no, all science and progress and choice shall be designed and deployed to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the cult of science shall sway and split and fall; the rotten pillar of choice shall be shaken, and the runaway train of progress shall be derailed, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.
TLDR: Our love for our children must be unconditional if it is to be love at all.
Elizabeth Lima is a married mother of two (nearly three). She is a corporate lawyer from North Carolina residing in London.