Liberal eugenics

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Liberal eugenics, also known as new eugenics and consumer eugenics, is a neologism for a claimed ideology which advocates the use of reproductive and genetic technologies where the choice of enhancing human characteristics and capacities is left to the individual preferences of parents acting as consumers, rather than the public health policies of the state. The term was coined by bioethicist Nicholas Agar.[1] Since around the year 2000, criticism has risen preferring to call the theory "libertarian eugenics" instead of its intention to keep to role of the state minimal in the advocated eugenics program.[2]


The term refers to an ideology of eugenics inspired by liberal theory and contrasted from the coercive state eugenics programs of the first half of the 20th century.[3] The sterilization of individuals alleged to have undesirable genes is the most controversial aspect of those programs.[1]

Historically, eugenics is often broken into the categories of positive (encouraging reproduction in the designated "fit") and negative (discouraging reproduction in the designated "unfit"). According to Edwin Black, many positive eugenic programs were advocated and pursued during the early 20th century, but the negative programs were responsible for the compulsory sterilization of hundreds of thousands of persons in many countries, and were contained in much of the rhetoric of Nazi eugenic policies of racial hygiene and genocide.[4] Liberal eugenics belongs to the "positive eugenics" category allowing parents to select desirable traits in an unborn child.[5]


Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, argues that liberal eugenics cannot be justified on the basis of the underlying liberal theory which inspires it. He introduces an alternative to John Rawls's social primary goods that might be called natural primary goods: heritable mental and physical capacities and dispositions that are valued across a range of projects and pursuits. He suggests that reprogenetic technologies like embryo selection, cellular surgery, and human genetic engineering, which aim to enhance "general purpose" traits in offspring are less like childrearing practices a liberal government leaves to the discretion of parents than like practices the state makes compulsory.[6]

Fox argues that if the liberal commitment to autonomy is important enough for the state to mandate childrearing practices such as health care and basic education, that very same interest is important enough for the state to mandate safe, effective, and functionally integrated genetic practices that act on analogous all-purpose traits such as resistance to disease and general cognitive functioning. He concludes that the liberal case for compulsory eugenics is a reductio ad absurdum against liberal theory.[6]

According to health care public policy analyst RJ Eskow, "libertarian eugenics" is the term that would more accurately describe the form of eugenics promoted by some notable proponents of liberal eugenics, in light of their strong opposition to even minimal state intervention in eugenic family planning, which would be expected of a social liberal state that assumes some responsibility for the welfare of its future citizens.[2]

The United Nations International Bioethics Committee wrote that liberal eugenics should not be confused with the ethical problems of the 20th century eugenics movements. However that it is still problematic because it challenges the idea of human equality and opens up new ways of discrimination and stigmatization against those who do not want or cannot afford the enhancements.[7]


Liberal eugenics is known as new eugenics, consumer eugenics, reprogenetics, or ″designer progeny″. The connotations of liberal eugenics are negative due to the history of eugenics being associated with dark historical times. According to the Harvard Law Review, the eugenics of the early 20th century were part of a false scientific justification for racism, class-ism, and colonial subjugation falsely concerned with genetic fitness. The new model of eugenics of the 21st century, called liberal eugenics is an advocates for genetic modification including the screening of genes that cause serious disabilities and engineering children to be born with more desirable physical and mental traits.[8] Liberal eugenics is aimed at improving the genotypes of future generations through screening and genetic modification to eliminate undesirable traits.


  1. ^ a b Agar, Nicholas (2004). Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. ISBN 1-4051-2390-7. 
  2. ^ a b Eskow, RJ (2007). "Homo Futurus: How Radically Should We Remake Ourselves - Or Our Children?". Retrieved 2007-02-02. 
  3. ^ Eugenics, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Jul 2, 2014)
  4. ^ Black, Edwin (2003). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56858-258-7. 
  5. ^ Witzany G (2016) No time to waste on the road to a liberal eugenics? EMBO Rep 17: 281.
  6. ^ a b Fox, Dov (2007). "The Illiberality of Liberal Eugenics". SSRN 1072104. 
  7. ^ "Report of the IBC on Updating Its Reflection on the Human Genome and Human Rights" (PDF). International Bioethics Committee. October 2, 2015. Retrieved October 22, 2015. The goal of enhancing individuals and the human species by engineering the genes related to some characteristics and traits is not to be confused with the barbarous projects of eugenics that planned the simple elimination of human beings considered as ‘imperfect’ on an ideological basis. However, it impinges upon the principle of respect for human dignity in several ways. It weakens the idea that the differences among human beings, regardless of the measure of their endowment, are exactly what the recognition of their equality presupposes and therefore protects. It introduces the risk of new forms of discrimination and stigmatization for those who cannot afford such enhancement or simply do not want to resort to it. The arguments that have been produced in favour of the so-called liberal eugenics do not trump the indication to apply the limit of medical reasons also in this case. 
  8. ^ "Regulating Eugenics". Harvard Law Review. 2008. Retrieved May 2, 2015. 

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