Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Eugenics the way for the perfect generation?

Although the concept of eugenics is one as old as the philosophies of Plato, the term eugenics still brings little meaning to Malaysians. But due to vast development in science, especially in the field of biotechnology, it is now a term that is getting rather well known.

What is eugenics, actually? The term eugenics, derived from the Greek eugenes, was first coined by the English mathematician and geographer Francis Galton (1822-1911) in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) to refer to one born "good in stock hereditarily endowed with noble qualities ".

Eugenics is a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed.

Eugenics was introduced in the 1880s by Francis Galton who was a cousin of Charles Darwin and the father of modern statistics. Galton pioneered the use of pedigrees, twin studies, and statistical correlation for the purpose of using that knowledge to improve the breed of man. Galton built upon Darwin's idea whereby the the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. He reasoned that, since human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, those societies were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest, and only by changing these social policies could society be saved from "reversion toward mediocrity". 

Eugenics became related to influencing differential birth rates in order to create a human society characterized by an over-abundance of desirable traits and decrease in, or a complete elimination of, undesirable traits. Positive eugenics focuses on increasing the presence of desirable traits, while negative eugenics focuses on decreasing the presence of undesirable traits. Negative eugenics is aimed at lowering fertility among the genetically disadvantaged. Eugenics eventually referred to human selective reproduction with an intention to create children with desirable traits, generally through the approach of influencing differential birth rates.

The goal of eugenics have been to create more intelligent people, save society resources, lessen human suffering and reduce health problems. Proposed means of achieving these goals most commonly include birth control, selective breeding, and genetic engineering. 

Eugenics is often used to refer to movements and social policies influential during the early twentieth century. In a historical and wider sense, eugenics can also be a study of improving human genetic qualities.

One example of eugenics that became a history was the Holocaust. Hitler believed that the human gene pool could be improved by using selective breeding similar to how farmers breed superior cattle strains. In the formulation of their racial policies, Hitler's government relied heavily upon Darwinism, especially the elaborations by Spencer and Haeckel. As a result, a central policy of Hitler's administration was the development and implementation of policies designed to protect the "superior race". This required at the very least preventing the "inferior races " from mixing with those judged superior in order to reduce contamination of the latter's gene pool. The "superior race" belief was based on the theory of group inequality within each species, a major presumption and requirement of Darwin's original "survival of the fittest" theory. This philosophy culminated in the "final solution", the extermination of approximately six million Jews and four million other people who belonged to what German scientists judged as "inferior races". Just like Holocaust, many other events occurred with eugenics as the core idea and principles such as the killing in Cambodia to the 20th century eugenics which is the abortion.

 Eugenics propaganda, Nazi style. Partial translation of text :" Qualitative decline in the population...It will come to this if individuals with lesser value have four children and those of higher value have two."[Graphic and translation from The Lancet, 2004]

Although the idea of eugenics seems barbaric in the light of these mentioned events, eugenics does have its redeeming qualities. Eugenics is very closely related to genetic engineering and we can see now that genetic modification when not carried out in humans, it improves the lives of population instead. One of the things eugenics has made possible is that humans now can carry out genetic test like any other test to indicate whether we have any bad genes in us. Genetic tests are the newest addition to a growing variety of medical tests.

Most medical tests are used to ascertain current state of health. However, some genetic tests can offer a peek into the future by revealing the presence of a gene that can bring on a disorder later in life, or a gene that increases susceptibility to a health problem. Some people find this information helpful in planning for the future. Such planning could include changes in lifestyle to ward off future health problems, undergoing more frequent checkups to catch problems in the early, more treatable stages, or financial planning to prepare for future medical needs. Other people find the present with constant health worries, especially when there may be no treatments or therapies available that can delay or prevent the onset of a disorder. Sometimes this test can identify those "bad " genes so that we do not pass them to our future generation. It seems like all the bad stuff that is programmed in us can be prevented from transferring to our next generation so that they are more strong, and more perfect than the previous generation.

Scientist since long ago had starte
d to play god whether with the intention of getting closer to Him or to prove the nonexistent of the Almighty. But the course nature has its on ways and reasons. Sickle cell anemia, as one example, causes many health problems, but interestingly it also provides immunity to malaria, which is common in southeast Asia, where many people have this condition. Should we wipe out sickle cell anemia in Southeast Asia, assuming we could do so? We would prevent sickle cell anemia deaths, but also cause malaria deaths.

The question arises; who has the power to decide what is good or bad? What are superior traits and what are inferior traits? Abortion is eugenics itself in small scale that's happening worldwide. Abortion is permitted if it endangers the life of its mother, but would it be ethical to carry on abortion when we find out that the child in question could be with Down syndrome? Should we wield the power to correct what could be corrected and perfect what can perfected? Should this child in question be brought to this world when we know that the child will go through hardship and suffering?

Positive eugenics is almost similar to vaccines that shield people from diseases. This is because, in positive eugenics, no lives are taken away. One of the benefits of positive eugenics is gender selection of babies based on the medical condition of the baby. How is it done? The technology used to conduct gender selection of babies is the pre-implantation Genetic diagnosis (PGD). This equipment is used to detect genetic disorders in embryos.  Firstly, in this diagnosis, a small number of the cells of the embryo are extracted during the development of the embryo at the eighth stage. The cells are then sent to be tested for any genetic disorders. Therefore, only the potentially healthy embryo will be selected or chosen by the doctor for the mother to conceive.

In other words, gender selection of babies can only be done with valid medical reasons or genetic disorders. For instance, a married couple would prefer to have a girl, because the embryo which is baby boy have genetic disorder such hemophilia. Hemophilia is genetic disorder which is only found in males. As for baby girls, most probably they would be carriers of genetic disorders. Genetic disorders are caused by mutation of the DNA sequence.

Another positive side of eugenics is creating designer babies. Designer babies are babies who have artificially selected genetic makeup. This is done through the combination of in vitro-fertilization with genetic engineering. In designer babies, the positive traits are enhanced or improved causing the baby to have better health, increased lifespan and even better facial features. Other than that, the genes of babies are modified to the extent that they might have better personality and high intelligent quotient. Modifying the genetic makeup is done by changing the specific alleles that control certain traits that make up individual. In creating designer babies, parents are allowed to choose the babies traits and physical appearances such as aye colour and hair colour.

Producing healthy human beings with high immunity is also a positive side of eugenics, and this has been proven to be true. For example, in Los Angeles, genetic scientist have used high technology techniques to subtract the possibilities of inheriting sickle cell anemia in a family of black race. The possibilities of getting sickle cell anemia was eradicated by excising or eliminating the sickle cell gene by the combination of in-vitro fertilization and genetic engineering on a cell taken from an embryo which is still developing in its early stage.

There's another light side of eugenics such as controlling world population. This issue has created many controversies among public because according to eugenics, only mentally healthy couples and couples without severe health conditions are allowed to reproduce. Scientist who supports eugenics believe that, a mentally healthy parent would produce a mentally stable individual with good thoughts and personality. This is because traits and personalities of parents are carried down through genes to generation after generation. Thus, the number of crimes and violence can be decreased as more people would have modified genes which prevent them to have perverted thoughts.

As a whole, positive eugenics gives way to producing individuals with good traits and better mental and physical well being. A better trait can be anything from good resistance of disease or high immunity level and healthy body condition. Eugenics is a strategised evolution for the life of mankind. Eugenics is a pathway for producing high quality offspring.

However, eugenics causes world ethical issues. One of the issues raised is abortion. Some babies are born and started out their life with trouble and engaged with accident and fatal disease that cannot be cured as well as babies with disease such chromosomal or recessively inherited disease as Down syndrome, Tay-Sachs disease, and thalassemia major. Babies with these diseases usually die early or fail to reproduce.

So, what are their rights? Where are their parents responsibilities? There is a question of whether parents who make decisions to abort a fetus or destroy an embryo on the basis of a genetic test result are making a free choice. Who decides what the best traits are? They are such innocent individuals that cannot speak for their rights and are deprived to make decision on their own. Therefore, the prenatal gene testing violates the rights of an unborn person and babies are still argued.

In eugenics, genes which are considered responsible for disease or have unfavorable characteristics are removed in order to improve the quality of gene pool. Thus is because, babies with these abnormalities can influence the gene pool of the next generation and cause long term genetic implications. Each child of a parent with the disease has a 50% chance of inheriting the gene. So, abortions are the best  resolution towards eugenics. It can alter allele frequencies in ways that society at time considers to be in the interests of humanity.

However, in the eyes of some disabled groups, selective abortion of fetuses with certain genetic encourages discrimination toward people with inherited diseases and is morally unacceptable. There  are always debates going on whether we human are playing God. Is it right for human beings to manipulate human genes by altering fundamental aspects of human makeup?