Human Genetic Modifications and Parental Perspectives

“Human Genetic Modifications and Parental Perspectives”

William Soderberg
Montgomery College

Talk given at the University of Athens, Greece in August, 2013


The utilitarian argument of John Harris and the libertarian position of Ronald Green concerning genetic modifications of children omit a parental and ancestral perspective. John Rawls proposes that the negotiators of obligations to future generations be viewed as heads of families. Drawing upon Rawls, I defend four claims: first, in seeking to balance social stability, autonomy, and general welfare the negotiators would assign priority to social stability; secondly, the negotiators would preserve a distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic human genetic modifications; thirdly, they would rule out non-therapeutic genetic modifications of children; finally, the negotiators would endorse a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of genotype.

KEY WORDS: human genetic modification, future generations

John Harris[1] argues from utilitarian premises for an obligation to engage in human genetic modification (HGM)—both for one’s children and oneself. Harris notes that some opponents of HGM argue that “it is tempting fate or divine wrath to play God and intervene in the natural order.” He characterizes this argument as an argument from superstition.[2]

While some resistance surely is born of superstition, I suggest that the resistance to HGM may be traced to another source. Followers of various religions recall in their narratives that their traditions are rooted in rejections of classic forms of injustice. Judaism arose in response to slavery, Christianity in answer to brutal colonialism, Buddhism in the rejection of suffering that accompanied a caste system, and Islam and Confucianism as checks on endless warfare. Each of these movements in its day represented a journey into new moral territory that sought ways to address social emergencies. These responses to injustice represent the best, not the worst, of religion. They do not stem from superstition; rather, they reflect shared intuitions in response to the suffering inflicted by injustice and brutality.

In time, as crusades and inquisitions in the name of religion eroded people’s trust in many religious leaders, the leaders of science and medicine came to replace religious leaders in the role of protecting the well-being of people. Yet these leaders in turn have lost people’s confidence when many contributed to the design and manufacture of weaponry in the 20th century and the related destruction rather than the protection of human lives. Involvement in the eugenics movement of the 20th century has also contributed to the erosion of the public’s trust in science and medicine.

In recent centuries libertarianism and utilitarianism have provided moral frameworks to address major social injustices. Ronald Green[3] draws upon a libertarian framework and supports a right to a sound genotype. Green writes: “[W]e might come to think of a solid genetic endowment as a basic human right.”[4] “[I]n some cases, gene enhancements may be the most efficient and least costly way of addressing urgent social problems.”[5]

During the twentieth century, eugenics came to be associated in the popular mind with some classic historical injustices. The British author G.K. Chesterton, for example, entitled his 1922 work on the subject “Eugenics and Other Evils.” George Annas and co-authors[6] have described eugenics as a crime against humanity—implying that it could be placed beside the brutalities of slavery, genocide, colonialism, feudal castes and perpetual war. A concern of many today is that non-therapeutic HGM comes perilously close to the earlier eugenics.

The common distinction between “therapy and enhancement,” along with the acceptance of genetic therapies and prohibition of genetic enhancements, rests on the perception that enhancements may be a form of eugenics. Even though individuals rather than populations are the focus of HGM in recent decades, the practice of HGM may become sufficiently widespread that the effect will be the alteration of a population. In this way, non-therapeutic HGM bears a close resemblance to the earlier eugenics. Green’s reference to genetics as a way of addressing urgent social problems echoes the expectation during the early eugenics movement that social problems could be eliminated through genetic interventions.

I suggest an element is missing in Harris’ and Green’s proposals. The missing element is a parental and ancestral perspective. A utilitarian perspective of the type represented by Harris is that of an impartial, benevolent spectator—not that of a parent. A utilitarian love of humanity is not identical with parental love for a child. Although Green cites Rawls, he ignores implications of Rawls’ important stipulation that the negotiators of a contract with future generations be viewed as heads of families.

Out of the ashes of the first round of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century came a questioning of the sources of moral authority. Persons who experienced the horror of Nazi death camps probed the depths of human experience to ask where, if anywhere, a basis of moral responsibility could be found. Jean-Paul Sartre[7] in his response traced moral authority to the individual’s confrontation with death. Sartre and other existentialist thinkers regard the individual’s choice to survive as the ultimate source of what is generally known as morality.

People in their collective memory recognize that parents and ancestors have faced an existential choice in varying degrees—in the face of classic injustices. They see in their ancestral stories courage to continue life despite the suffering that stems from these injustices—and then to pass life on to others who, in turn, face an existential choice.

When people look for leaders they can trust, they accept leaders who support a coherent narrative of a way of life that can be passed on to the next generation and beyond. They are aware of leaders in history—including those in religion and science—who have betrayed the people’s trust.

When the leaders betray people’s trust, those who have been betrayed exercise a form of practical wisdom and seek their own paths to just and sustainable societies. Migrations from wars and other forms of brutalization have occurred throughout history. Historically the classic injustices stirred people from within to rise up and address these injustices.

Ronald Green’s challenge to ordinary intuitions surrounding non-therapeutic HGM is not likely to resonate with those persons who share the conviction that non-therapeutic HGM is a form of eugenics and that eugenic practices belong in the list of classic historical injustices.

The moral issues posed by HGM are so profound that a new moral framework may emerge to address social justice issues surrounding the practice. At the center of this framework is the question of obligations to future generations.

The social contract theory of John Rawls addresses duties to future generations and offers some preliminary considerations regarding genetic endowment. I will draw upon Rawls and suggest some supplements to Rawls’ discussion.

I propose that, if the negotiators of duties to future generations view themselves as heads of families, they would preserve a distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic HGM and would rule out non-therapeutic genetic modifications of children. I take “heads of families” to include father, mother, or any person or persons who nurture a child through the period of dependency. A family may take many forms, but the core element is at least one person who nurtures another through the period of childhood dependency.

Within Rawls’ framework, the negotiators viewed as heads of families discuss the basic rights, principles, and values that ought to frame HGM. Rawls stipulates that “for anyone in the next generation, there is someone who cares about him in the present generation. Thus the interests of all are looked after and, given the veil of ignorance, the whole strand is tied together.”[8]

The heads of families who negotiate the contract with future generations would note that classic injustices led to the creation of constitutional rights. With knowledge of the general facts about the human past, they would aim at policies that sustain communities—both family and larger communities—and make possible the continuation of life. In matters of HGM, the negotiators would seek constraints on parental license.

Given the past experiences with eugenics policies, I propose the negotiators—in an effort to balance the conflicting values of social stability, autonomy, and net benefit—would assign priority to the value of a stable, sustainable society. The negotiators would recognize the likelihood of a competition equivalent to that found in a Hobbesian state of nature[9] if parents were given license to seek non-therapeutic HGM for their children. Classic historical injustices returned humans to a state of nature; similarly, non-therapeutic genetic modification of children would unleash a fierce competition and collapse society into a non-sustainable Hobbesian state of nature. The narrative told to the next generation would be that of a non-sustainable society.

The practical wisdom of those who negotiate genetic duties to offspring would prompt the negotiators to preserve the distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic modifications. The negotiators would regard the distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic HGM as a useful distinction that could serve as an ideal. Even though imprecision in the distinction would be present, difficult cases could be the focus of ongoing discussion.

An ideal may serve well despite imprecision. A baseball umpire once commented that he tried to call a perfect game every time he went onto the field. Yet in fifteen years of umpiring he had never succeeded in calling a perfect game. An ideal of impartiality is a goal that reflects a fair-minded spirit, and fair-mindedness is an important element in sustaining a practice.

In the interest of fairness and justice, the negotiators of the social contract would rule out non-therapeutic HGM of offspring. In doing so, they would interpret the principle of autonomy as the capacity of a community to govern itself and not as mere individual license. The negotiators would generally protect the value of net benefit by accepting therapeutic HGM.

A potential conflict between a right to a sound genotype and a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of genotype may arise in the application of the Rawlsian approach. To manage a conflict between these two rights, an Aristotelian and a communitarian framework as reflected respectively in EriK Malmqvist[10] and Michael Sandel[11] could prove helpful. The negotiators would aim to create parental practices that enable the young to realize their potentials, as Malmqvist[12] argues. Malmqvist notes that good parenting is relational—a feature that is absent in non-therapeutic modifications of unborn or very young offspring. Sandel criticizes non-therapeutic modification of children as a form of hyperparenting that is likely to frustrate rather than support a child’s development. With these supplements to Rawls, a right to non-discrimination on the basis of genotype would be assigned priority over a right to a sound genotype.

Greater trust in science and medicine would be a likely outcome if duties to future generations included the distinction between therapeutic and non-therapeutic modifications along with the prohibition of non-therapeutic genetic modification of human offspring. With greater trust in the leaders, social stability could be maintained and a coherent narrative could be told to future generations.


[1] Harris, 2009.

[2] Harris, 2009, 133-134.

[3] Green, 2007.

[4] Green, 2007, 157.

[5] Green, 2007, 167.

[6] Annas et al., 2002

[7] Sartre, 1966.

[8] Rawls, 1971, 129.

[9] Hobbes, 1651.

[10] Malmqvist, 2011.

[11] Sandel, 2007, 61-62.


Annas, G. J., L. B. Andrews, and R. M. Isasi. 2002. “Protecting the endangered human: Toward an international treaty prohibiting cloning and inheritable alterations.” American Journal of Law and Medicine 28(2-3): 151-178.

Chesterton, G.K. 1922. Eugenics and Other Evils.

Green, Ronald. 2007. Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice. Yale University Press.

Harris, John. 2009. “Enhancements Are a Moral Obligation.” In Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom, eds., Human Enhancement, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 131-154.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. Part I, Chapter XIII. Penguin Books, 1968.

Malmqvist, Erik. 2011. “Reprogenetics and the ‘Parents Have Always Done It’ Argument.” Hastings Center Report 41, no. 1: 43-49.

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press, Harvard.

Sandel, Michael. 2007. The Case Against Perfection. Belknap Press, Harvard.

Sartre, John-Paul. 1966. Being and Nothingness. “My Death.” Washington Square Press. Pp. 680-707.