May 2018

The Ethics of the New Eugenics.  Edited by Calum MacKellar and Christopher Bechtel. Berghahn Books. 242 pages. $29.95.

Eugenics is back, but now it is all about pretended “choice” and “compassion.” In The Ethics of the New Eugenics, Calum MacKellar and Christopher Bechtel examine the serious questions presented by the new eugenics, weighing its pros and cons and citing numerous scientists and philosophers who favor or disfavor it. MacKellar and Bechtel lament that the general public has allowed the new eugenics to prevail without an open debate. We are at a dangerous crossroad in Western culture where the human-rights legislation enacted by the United Nations might no longer suffice to curb current eugenic practices.

The old eugenics was obviously monstrous. In the first half of the 20th century, certain countries forcibly sterilized people they deemed “unfit to procreate.” It was a Darwinian attempt by elites to direct human evolution, as if people were nothing more than animals in a stockyard. In The Pivot of Civilization (1922), Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger complained that too little was being done in the U.S. to curb, by force or persuasion, the breeding of “defectives, delinquents, and dependents.” Soon 24 states authorized the sterilization of criminals and so-called imbeciles. The Nazis carried this practice further, also sterilizing those with “incurable diseases.” In addition, physicians under Nazi rule in the 1940s euthanized around 25,000 disabled children and adults. They thought these murders were scientifically justified by “evolutionary process, racial hygiene, and eugenics.” Pope Pius XI denounced eugenics as a “pernicious practice” (Casti Connubii, 1930), and later the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights rejected the eugenics ideology.

Today, eugenics is again trying to direct human evolution, though by subtler means. It is not yet state-imposed, but it is as pernicious as ever. It is advertised as freely chosen by thoughtful parents out of compassion for their prospective children who might be born diseased and disabled. The new eugenics seeks to end the potential suffering of these children by “deselecting” gametes, embryos, and fetuses afflicted with possible genetic disorders. Rather than welcoming each child unconditionally, parents are now invited (and perhaps may soon be compelled) to use medical technology to eliminate the unwanted, select the desirable, and prevent suffering from inherited disabilities.

“Eugenic quality control of children” is silently growing in acceptance. Those among us who live with disabilities, and those who love the disabled, are right to worry that this will lead to some lives being regarded as “having less value or dignity than others.” And when, despite careful “deselection,” a child is born with a genetic disorder, his parents may sue for damages. What will the psychological consequences be for children who are the subjects of “wrongful life” lawsuits, whose parents state publicly that “it would have been better for their children if they had not been born”?

There are different procedures for “deselecting” a child who might carry an inherited disorder. One is called “pre-implantation embryonic selection,” whereby an embryo is allowed to develop for three days, and then one or two cells are removed and tested for a faulty gene. If the faulty gene is found, the embryo is “deselected” — even though the presence of that gene doesn’t mean the person would actually have suffered from the disorder; he might have been only a carrier.

Another procedure is called “prenatal genetic selection,” whereby a preborn child is screened for disorders like cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome, with the assumption that an abortion is readily available if the disorder is detected. In fact, using “microarray technology,” a preborn child can be tested for 70 disorders and “deselected” if any are found. Yet these disorders can be found with only “variable levels of certainty.”

According to MacKellar and Bechtel, such tests constitute the new negative eugenics, which is biased against preserving the lives of children who might be born with disabilities. These tests imply that preborn children must “meet a threshold of quality of life before they are considered to be worthy of postnatal life.” Babies in the womb can be “deselected” even for frivolous reasons, such as a cleft palate, club feet, webbed fingers, or an extra digit — all correctable conditions.

Then there are “savior siblings,” children who are created primarily for the benefit of older siblings and become instruments for their medical treatment. In one case, 30 embryos were created in six in vitro fertilization cycles before a single embryo was found to be compatible with the sibling who needed saving. What happened to the other 29 embryos? Surplus embryos are usually destroyed, frozen, or given over to scientific research. These procedures are morally wrong, since human embryos are, from the start, directing their own development according to their unique DNA, which contains in epitome all their future characteristics. They are not merely clumps of cells but are already persons with immortal souls.

Those who favor the new eugenics argue that parents now have more procreative freedom and autonomy, healthy children are born instead of children with disabilities, suffering is reduced, and society’s overall well-being is improved. (All these arguments are reducible, of course, to “the end justifies the means.”) Some also argue that preventing the birth of disabled children is “very cost effective” since it avoids “lifelong healthcare costs.”

Opponents of the new eugenics counter that our universal human dignity equalizes the worth and rights of everyone in the human family. Moreover, even though science can reduce us to biochemistry, a person is, philosophically speaking, never just a genetic disorder, and suffering has no “implications” for anyone’s “inherent worth.” Persons whom society regards as disabled might not see themselves as such — disability is a debatable term, and the “deselection” of embryos and preborn children due to possible disabilities may well bring “stigmatization” to those who live with such disabilities, that perhaps they should never have existed. Tolerance for imperfect children might diminish, and, as cultural standards change, reproductive choice might become limited as parents are coerced by societal pressure into using eugenic procedures to produce only healthy children.

The authors ask important questions: Should parents be the biodesigners of their children? Will “selected” children receive only “conditional acceptance”? Will the new practices lead parents to look on their children with the critical eyes of consumers, seeing them as “objects or possessions”? Children, in order to thrive, need unconditional acceptance from parents. They need to know that their lives have intrinsic value. Certainly, they should never have to live with the awareness that their parents wanted them to have certain genetic characteristics before they deserved to be born!

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner



Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being.  By Anne M. Carpenter. University of Notre Dame Press. 250 pages. $32.

Swiss Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) was a well-known theologian both before and after Vatican II; his eclectic thought engaged important writers and themes of 20th-century Catholicism and its interaction with post-Christian culture. Before entering the Society of Jesus and completing licentiates in philosophy and theology, Balthasar earned a Ph.D. in German literature. This uniquely qualified him to evaluate German culture. His work, examined in Anne M. Carpenter’s Theo-Poetics, often addressed the metaphysical problems in German thought that stem from its lack of transcendence. The field of theopoetics recalibrates theology as more akin to poetry than analysis. Carpenter says Balthasar used “poets and poetic language to make theological arguments” because the “poetic way of speaking expresses metaphysical truth without reducing one to the other.”

Post-18th-century German thought fails because it looks for a vertical dimension from within the individual human who has been cut off from both traditional metaphysics and revelation. The resulting preoccupation with nihilism and death impacts everything, including art. Carpenter sums up well the central aim of Balthasar’s work: “a restoration of beauty in theology, which means he must restore metaphysics as much as beauty, and means as well that he must show how art is supported by (and supports) such a metaphysic.” What this entails is left open-ended, for though Theo-Poetics analyzes a few of the Swiss theologian’s writings in depth, we are only beginning to unpack the great wealth of ideas on aesthetics and modern thought found in his voluminous writings.

German writer Rainer Maria Rilke asserted that without the transcendent, life and death are “ontologically identical.” For Balthasar, this is reflected in modern art’s nihilism. Carpenter writes, “Beauty and metaphysics, art and philosophy, have come to a mutually resembled ruin: atomized, history-less, nihilist.” Rilke highlighted the limitations of modern thought. Though a gifted poet, he never escaped the German mindset that had become closed to the transcendent. This contrasts with the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Balthasar admired for showing the beauty of the “analogy of being” and the possibility of transcendence in the post-Enlightenment age.

Carpenter characterizes the analogy of being (analogia entis) as “a lively Christocentrism that is not a threat to created beauty, but rather its fulfillment.” She argues that the analogia entis, particularly as outlined by St. Thomas, forms a central component of Balthasar’s thought. In placing his thought within his theological and philosophical milieu, Carpenter discusses a contemporary of his, German-Polish Jesuit Erich Przywara (1889-1972). The difference between God and the world as expressed in the analogy of being is, as Carpenter paraphrases Przywara, “not simply a negation — making it a statement about what God is not — but rather a positive quality, a ‘polarity’ that constitutes a positive ‘relationship’ with the world in the dissimilarity between the two.” The analogy of being allows God to be both strongly identified with the world yet separate from it. This is a biblical notion, basic to the Old Testament’s viewpoint. A deeper discussion of the place of the Bible in Balthasar’s thinking would have helped here.

The analogy of being is not so easily accepted by all. A depiction of one Swiss theologian dialoguing with another shows how the Catholic view, via the analogy of being, accords to nature a great role. The Swiss Protestant pastor Karl Barth rejected this role. Carpenter writes that Balthasar, in his book The Theology of Karl Barth, insisted that “Catholic theology must by its nature remain ‘open,’ and that ‘The Church as such cannot possess a rigid, enclosed metaphysics.’” Yet Balthasar also praised Barth for his “profound Christocentrism.” Addressing Barth’s concerns about the analogy of being enriched Balthasar’s own thought by helping him revisit the importance of Christ and revelation while also attributing to nature the metaphysical reality that Barth opposed.

Balthasar’s thought, as Carpenter portrays it, could encourage the kind of renewal that Vatican II sought for the Church but so far has failed to achieve. It presents a renewal of continuity, one that both embraces the modern world and shows where modernity has closed itself to transcendence. It shows how modernity can be open once again to the transcendent through the analogia entis and the person of Christ. This personalism would enable the modern, atomized individual to rediscover his bearings in a vertical metaphysics without endangering his personal identity or freedom. Modernity’s gains need not be sacrificed.

Balthasar saw much potential for goodness in modernity’s authenticity and its personalism, the latter of which could “reveal the unique personality of Christ.” This emphasis on personality led the Swiss theologian to anchor his thought in Christology, which, Carpenter argues, enables the “unique entwining of the personal and the metaphysical, in contradistinction to modernity and yet drawing from it.”

- Brian Welter





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