The science of human rights: Amnesty's latest fear: how our genes may d etermine our fate

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If modern biology can disassemble humanity into a kind of molecular Meccano, what sense does it make to talk about human rights? This question is not new. Its classic expression was in Brave New World (written by the brother of a leading biologist of his day), and the most succinct statement of the problem was made by Stewart Brand in the Whole Earth Catalogue 30 years ago, when he said, "We are as Gods, and might as well get good at it."

The godlike status of biologists in the public imagination is shown by a harrowing story that Ian Wilmut, the scientist who cloned Dolly, tells. Following the publicity his experiment generated, he received a phone call from a woman whose two-year-old daughter had died of leukemia four days before. She wanted a copy of her daughter. As a man with three children himself, he said, "I have a suspicion that if we could do it, we would: we'd wave the magic wand and have the child back." But even if human cloning became safe and possible, he said, it will never give scientists that sort of magic wand. What cloning a dead child would do would be instead to make a new, different individual, who may well grow in a slightly different way. And this, he thought, would be not be fair to the new person, who would grow up constantly measured against an impossible template. "It would probably be an unreasonable pressure to copy a child under those circumstances."

He made these remarks at Oxford, during his contribution to a series of lectures on biology and human rights. Jonathan Glover, whose turn it is to lecture tonight, agrees that the link between genetics and human rights is subtle. "Much of the development of ethics since Brave New World was published has been to ask why we are affronted by that future, and how to defend our revulsion from it." Biological determinism, the doctrine that we are shaped by our genes, is obvious nonsense, he says. The deeper problem is whether we are entirely conditioned by the interplay of our genes and our environment, and so could be moulded to taste if both were controlled. "Aldous Huxley was a genius and saw this. Since then we have come further than the very crude forms of utilitarianism that ruled in Brave New World, in which people were simply after pleasure. We have realised that people value variety, self-determination, and the chance to shape their own lives, too."

The pursuit of autonomy for its own sake may lead away from Brave New World. It will not take us to utopia. The biggest theme that has emerged in the course of these Amnesty lectures is that any threat to human rights posed by biological technology comes from an entirely new direction. Not all the speakers would agree with Wilmut that an injustice would be committed against a child if it had been produced as a clone of a dead sibling. But all would agree that it is not the state which threatens to use these techniques dangerously, but rather individuals acting within the free market. The classic example of state abuse of reproductive technology has been the campaigns of abortion and forced sterilisation carried out in China and parts of India. In democratic India, revulsion against the campaign helped to bring down one of Indira Gandhi's governments, and compulsory sterilisation has long since ended there. But in its place has come the widespread selective abortion of female foetuses, simply because they would, if born, be girls.

That kind of abortion is about as crude as reproductive technology can get. Further developments may make it possible to discriminate among embryos on the basis of much finer distinctions. Some of them are uncontroversial, except to the sort of absolutists who believe that all embryonic life must at all costs be preserved. Jonathan Glover, a philosopher who is director of the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King's College London, will argue in his lecture tonight that there are some rare diseases so horrible that an early abortion would be acting in the interests of the potential child, saving it from a short lifetime filled with pain. There is, for example, a condition called Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, invariably fatal, which among other things causes the sufferer to lose the distinction between his body and the outside world, so that he gnaws continuously at his own lips and fingers and will, if not prevented, eat them.

It is difficult to suppose that even the most ardent pro-lifers, confronted with the reality of such a child's fate, would not suppose it were better for it not to have been born. But such clear-cut cases are few. More common conditions such as Down's syndrome are much harder to judge. If society regards the presence of such a disease as an acceptable reason for aborting a foetus, this makes it harder to preserve equality of respect for those already born. One might argue that their human worth, if not their human rights, has been diminished.

Nonetheless, the abortion of Down's syndrome foetuses is very different from Social Darwinism, or from Nazi eugenics, to which it is sometimes compared. "I get increasingly irritated by the facile use of the Nazi case in these debates. The modern idea of the gene as the unit of survival is very different from their belief in the race or the nation as the unit which Darwinism shapes."

It is true that parents picking and choosing among their potential children on the basis of their individual genes is clearly different from picking and choosing among whole population groups. But there is one case where the Nazi ideology and the free market practice might intersect: sexual preference. If some parents will abort a foetus just for being a female, it seems clear that some, given the opportunity, would do the same if tests suggested their child would otherwise be gay. Now, such tests may never be invented. It is extraordinarily unlikely that the whole spectrum of behaviours and affections clumped together as "gay" are all determined by the same factors, or that that all or even most of these determining factors operate in the womb. But it is at least possible that some do, and that within 50 years some cases of homosexual disposition will be detectable in the womb. What should society expect of parents then? Should it prohibit the tests that make such decisions possible? Should it demand that parents bring up a child whose sexual orientation they find repulsive or whom they believe will be condemned to a life of unhappiness and isolation because of his condition? Such a belief could easily become a self-fulfiling prophecy in a society where abortion on grounds of sexual preference became established: the smaller a minority gays formed, the more miserable their lives might become.

These are not questions to which any obvious or easy answer presents itself. They throw upside down the normal order of things in which Amnesty members find themselves protecting, or trying to protect, individuals from wicked governments. The questions raised by reproductive ethics demand that governments curb the actions of wicked individuals. They may even demand that government curb the actions of good people acting inside wicked systems. After 40 years of struggling against totalitarianisms, human rights might have to take on the market next.

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