Saturday 17 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Frobisher Auditorium 1, Barbican Battle over Life and Death
Today, we have more understanding of our genes than ever before. As a result, we now have the capacity to alter those genes in order to resolve congenital medical conditions – for example, by the use of mitochondrial donation – ‘three-person IVF’ – which was approved earlier this year by parliament. Other techniques that change our germlines – our heritable characteristics – are also on their way, such as the CRISPR/Cas9 technique recently used by Chinese scientists to ‘edit’ the genes of a human embryo. But such developments often inspire resistance – the so-called ‘yuk factor’. In particular, the ability to manipulate our germlines is sometimes described as ‘eugenic’. In order to come to terms with this debate, therefore, we need to understand what eugenics is.
It is no secret that eugenics and genetics are historically connected. In 1883, the word ‘eugenics’ was coined by Francis Galton, a promoter of eugenic policies and a pioneer in the field that subsequently became known as genetics. Ironically, Galton contributed to the discrediting of his own worldview, when genetics ultimately proved that there is no scientific basis for the concept of race.
Nonetheless, the connection between eugenics and genetics remains a source of tension and debate to this day. If eugenics is defined very broadly, as the application of genetics to improve the health of human populations, then it can be made to encompass most if not all of genetics. But the term is often used in a narrower sense, to invoke the horrors of Nazi eugenics programmes during the Second World War. The question of what does and does not constitute eugenics, and when science and medicine should be inhibited because they raise the spectre of eugenics, is often a matter of bitter dispute and no small confusion.
Are we already going too far in our manipulation of human genes, or should we embrace the ability to conquer illness? To what extent should we be concerned about attempts to improve human beings? How should we grasp the nettle of what eugenics is, and whether and in what sense we should find it objectionable?
Dr Chris Gyngell
research fellow, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
Dr Lesley Hall
Wellcome Library Research Fellow
Dr Ellie Lee
reader in social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies
stem cell researcher, University of Oxford
communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews
The ageing population is a challenge, not a threat.Ella Whelan, spiked, 23 September 2015
It is now easy to edit the genomes of plants, animals and humansEconomist, 22 August 2015
Just imagine how much happier you would be if a prematurely deceased loved one were alive, or a debilitated one were vigorous — and multiply that good by several billion, in perpetuity.Steven Pinker, Boston Globe, 1 August 2015
Whoever first crosses the line to edited embryos will find a powerful new resource in the fight against disease. What we ought to do is use it responsibly.Chris Gyngell, Guardian, 1 May 2015
There is a need for caution, but also for reasoned and well-informed debate. Only then can we have appropriate and proportionate regulations to govern the use of these powerful and important techniques.Robin Lovell-Badge, BioNews, 27 April 2015
The perseverance of gene-therapy researchers in the face of adversity is to be applauded.Robin Walsh, spiked, 17 January 2014
Modern biomedical science is capable of giving people more choice than ever before about what their future children will be like. Such possibilities raise important ethical issues – questions about which of these choices, if any, are morally wrong.Stephen Wilkinson and Eve Garrard, Keele University, 1 December 2012
In the first of a three-part series to mark disability history month, Victoria Brignell looks back at the way the UK and USA have treated disabled people and uncovers a history that both countries would prefer to forget.Victoria Brignell, New Statesman, 9 December 2010
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