Genetic Enhancement: Hardening or Softening Inequality?

David Frum’s article on the increase in inequality in the US is a fascinating portrait of the political consequences of ever-more-diverging life chances here. I found this coda to the piece particularly provocative:

It is probable that the trend to inequality will grow even stronger in the years ahead, if new genetic techniques offer those with sufficient resources the possibility of enhancing the intelligence, health, beauty and strength of children in the womb. How should conservatives respond to such new technologies? The anti-abortion instincts of many conservatives naturally incline them to look at such techniques with suspicion — and indeed it is certainly easy to imagine how they might be abused.

Yet in an important address delivered as long ago as 1983, Pope John Paul II argued that genetic enhancement was permissible — indeed, laudable — even from a Catholic point of view, as long as it met certain basic moral rules. Among those rules: that these therapies be available to all. Ensuring equality of care may become inseparable from ensuring equality of opportunity.

I’m glad to see Frum make the link between bioconservatism and egalitarianism that I emphasized back in 2002. In The End of Equality, Mickey Kaus made a similar (though far more contestable) point about “assortative mating.” The bottom line here is a simple one: the moral validity of advantages at the top always depends at least in part on such advantages’ availability to those at the bottom. When the rich diverge too far from the rest in their level of security or life expectancy, the rest rightly wonder if their worries can even be comprehended by the powerful.

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