Dominic Lawson: Beware the allure of 'liberal eugenics'

Marie Stopes cut her son out of her will for marrying a short-sighted woman
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One of the glories of The Independent is that its opinion pages play host to wildly different views, with regular columnists often diametrically opposed. The readers are expected, as educated grown-ups, to be able to cope with such ideological dissonance.

It is in that spirit that I take issue with Johann Hari's article last week, in which he celebrated "liberal eugenics", and argued that any who wanted to stand in the way "should be shunned and shamed". That's an awful lot of shunning and shaming, starting with the world's 900 million practising Catholics.

I am, as it happens, not among their number, and therefore am not horrified by the fact that 62-year-old Patti Farrant has just given birth to a baby boy, by means of IVF and a donated egg. The argument that somehow the child is the victim of a selfish act, because he faces bereavement at an early age, is not an entirely compelling one. My own mother died when I was in my twenties, and while that made me very sad - and still does - I didn't and don't conclude that I would have been better off never having existed.

But Mrs Farrant's actions seem to me a long way from a world in which parents could choose which genetic attributes they would like their children to have - or not to have - and perform the relevant additions or subtractions in a Petri dish before implanting the genetically modified embryo in the mother's womb. Part of the essence of our humanity is that, while subject to the random mixing of our parents' genes, we feel we are the masters of our own destiny, responsible entirely for our own actions and with the vital sense of freedom that entails.

Imagine, as an adolescent, discovering that your well-meaning and apparently beneficent parents had paid for pre-implantation gene therapy which had made you exceptionally gifted at mathematics. The direction of your education had inexorably followed. But what if you wished you had been of a more intuitive and artistic bent, and you found the company of other mathematicians deeply depressing? The sense of helplessness would be appalling, and the hatred you would feel for your parents would be intense, going far beyond the adolescent rebelliousness of pre-modified teenagers.

Johann dismisses the concerns of those who fear that the world could divide "between the rich, with their genetically modified babies and the poor, who are lumbered with the random flaws of nature". Apparently the answer is to make all such genetic modification freely available on the NHS - as if that benighted organisation did not have enough on its clinical plate. As the example above indicates, I believe that the victims of such a class division would not just be the poor, but the genetically modified rich kids whose sense of individual worth and achievement would be even more than usually depleted by parents with more money than sense.

Genetic modification, like all science, is neither good nor bad in itself. I believe that GM crops contain more potential for improving the lot of the poorest among humanity than almost any other scientific advance of the past century. It is precisely because a plant is not a thinking being with a fundamental need to be conscious of his or her absolute and unintermediated individuality that I don't denigrate the efforts of scientists to create crops genetically immune to disease.

Johann insists that "liberal eugenics has nothing to do with the evil of Nazi eugenics, which was imposed by the state and concerned not with producing healthier babies but with deranged race theories. No, this new brand is voluntarily entered into by parents and is motivated by love, not hate". There are some misconceptions here.

First of all, the Nazis were absolutely concerned with producing healthier babies, which is why they embarked on the compulsory sterilisation of the handicapped. They shared the "liberal eugenicist" view that to have a disability makes a life less worth living, and that it was therefore morally justified to prevent as many of those lives as possible, and to supplant them with the maximum number of "healthy babies".

Second, I recall that Johann supported the action of an unnamed NHS trust, which in March sought - against the parents' wishes - to end the life of child MB, who suffered from the most severe form of Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Judge James Holman turned down the NHS's application, and as far as we know, MB is still alive. Here we had as clear an example as you could wish of the state attempting to impose a "solution" which was unacceptable to "parents motivated by love". In what sense was liberal eugenics in this case distinguishable from illiberal eugenics?

Finally, "liberal eugenics" is not a "new brand." It is the original brand. As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has pointed out: "What seems to be reviving today is the explosive alliance of Darwinism and free-market ideology which flourished at the turn of 20th century under the umbrella of the Pax Britannica." Perhaps Habermas was thinking of Winston Churchill, who as a member of Asquith's Liberal cabinet in 1910, told his leader that "the unnatural growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes is a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate. The source from which this stain of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed." Churchill was influenced by English liberals such as Galton, who can plausibly be described as the father of eugenics.

Another great English "progressive" eugenicist was the birth control pioneer Marie Stopes. She cut her son Harry out of her will for marrying a short-sighted woman called Mary Barnes Wallis. Stopes wrote: "She has an inherited disease of the eyes which not only makes her wear hideous glasses so that it is horrid to look at her, but the awful curse will carry on and I have the horror of our line being so contaminated and little children with the misery of glasses ... Mary and Harry are quite callous about both the wrong to their children, the wrong to my family and the eugenic crime."

Of course it is ludicrous to label every eugenicist as a Nazi. But it's worth listening to those who had actual experience of the Hitler years. One such was the late German President Johannes Rau, who as a precocious schoolboy was a member of the "Confessing Church", the small group within German Protestantism which resisted Nazism. Shortly before his death this year, Rau said this about the risks inherent in "liberal eugenics": "Once you start to instrumentalise human life, once you start to distinguish between life worth living and life not worth living, you enter upon a course where there is no stopping point."