Eugenics Problems, Left and Right

Michael Gerson has an interesting editorial in the Washington Post on the Eugenics Temptation–of the left. He quotes the following statement of James Watson on embryo selection:

“If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her.” In the same interview, [Watson] said, “We already accept that most couples don’t want a Down child. You would have to be crazy to say you wanted one, because that child has no future.”

Gerson then quotes Yuval Levin on a tension within liberalism that I’ve noted on this blog–between egalitarianism and libertarianism:

Science looks at human beings in their animal aspects. As animals, we are not always equal. It is precisely in the ways we are not simply animals that we are equal. So science, left to itself, poses a serious challenge to egalitarianism. The left . . . .finds itself increasingly disarmed against this challenge, as it grows increasingly uncomfortable with the necessarily transcendent basis of human equality. Part of the case for egalitarianism relies on the assertion of something beyond our animal nature crudely understood, and of a standard science alone will not provide. Defending equality requires tools the left used to possess but seems to have less and less of.

Gerson, whom David Frum “ranks among the most brilliant and most influential presidential speechwriters in decades,” has put his finger on what is probably the most dangerous tension in “left” ideology today. Positional arms races for designer babies dovetail with an ethos that says that choice in reproductive matters must be absolute. As I stated five years ago in an article, egalitarian principles should check this tide.


However, Gerson ought to also admit the “right”‘s partial responsibility for driving the appeal of such arms races. Libertarianism is as much an aspect of the Republican as the Democratic party, and its tendency to reject all arguments for regulation is probably a stronger political force than the left’s alleged rejection of a “necessarily transcendent basis of human equality.” The “left” itself is diverse, and one need only read the work of Michael Perry, or basic documents in Catholic social thought, to see a robust program of social solidarity wedded to an ideal of equality grounded in natural law.

Finally, let’s consider why in America a family with a Down’s syndrome child (or one with any disability) might think it “has no future.” Why do we leave so much of children’s health care up to the chance that their parents will be able to afford insurance? Why do we as a society cling to the ideal of permitting families to go bankrupt while providing health care for their children? Gerson states:

Progressives, at their best, have a special concern for the different, the struggling and the weak. When it comes to eugenics, they face not only a tension but a choice — and they should choose human equality over the pursuit of human perfection.

Progressives might respond that conservatives, at their best, realize that our ideals can only survive when they are embedded in a culture that supports them. Gerson may be hard-pressed to defend the transcendent value of every individual life while promoting a neo-Nietzschean economic policy that routs ever more money to ubermenschen at the top of the income scale while cutting Medicaid funding. When it comes to economic policy, he faces not only a tension but a choice — and he should choose human equality over the anti-tax, anti-spending dogma that has denied so many Americans basic economic security.

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