What’s Wrong with Selecting for Maleness or White Skin?

top_pgd(image: here)

What’s Wrong? is grateful to Rivka Weinberg (Scripps College) for the following original contribution.

What’s Wrong with Selecting for Maleness or White Skin?

Prenatal genetic diagnosis and implantation makes it possible to screen embryos for specific genes or traits and then implant only the embryos with the desired genes or traits.  This process has been used to select for gender, for bone marrow compatible with a sick sibling in need of a bone marrow transplant, and to select non-deaf or deaf embryos.  Eventually, it might be possible to select for specific traits such as blue eyes or athleticism.  Is anything wrong with any uses of PGD?  And, if so, what’s wrong?

It’s not uncommon for people to think that it is acceptable, or even required, to use PGD to screen out embryos with serious diseases but not acceptable to select in favor of disability or for specific traits not associated with disease or disability, such as male gender.  It seems intuitively permissible to use PGD to screen out embryos with Tay Sachs or achondroplasia but not to select for musical ability or exceptional intelligence.  But why?

We might think that it’s permissible, or even a good thing, to select against genes that present challenges to the well-being of future people[1] but not acceptable to select for mere parental prejudices, such as skin color, or personal preferences, such as eye color.  This is a fruitful line of reasoning that provides a principled way to reject the use of PGD to express our own personal prejudices and preferences.  It seems reasonable to distinguish between PGD done for the sake of future people and PGD done for the sake of parental prejudice or preference because prejudices and mere personal preferences are no way to embark on parenthood, which most take to be a role that is best fulfilled with less narcissism, prejudice, and pettiness rather than more.  So far so good.

The problem is that just as having Tay Sachs presents challenges to well-being, being female or having very dark skin can also present challenges to well-being.  So what is the moral difference between using PGD to ensure that your child doesn’t suffer from Tay Sachs and using PGD to ensure that your child doesn’t suffer from femaleness?

Although I doubt there is a pat answer to this complex question, I suggest that there are indeed several promising ways to think about supporting this sort of distinction.

            One: Expressing and/or perpetuating and/or participating in a prejudice, such as racism or sexism, is wrong for the same reasons it’s wrong to be racist or sexist, generally.  It involves an unjust discrimination on the basis of an irrelevant criterion.  So if you choose to have a girl, say, because you think girls are more compliant and therefore easier to raise, you are being sexist, which is wrong for the same reasons sexism is wrong generally.  But, even if you don’t mean to express any bigotry and are motivated solely for the sake of future people, selecting against an unjustly oppressed group sends a message that it’s bad to be a member of those groups, which perpetuates the prejudice, when, in fact, it is only prejudice that makes being female or dark skinned, etc., a life challenge.
Some think we can say the exact same thing about disabilities such as deafness or blindness, etc. – i.e., that selecting against these traits sends a message that these traits are undesirable when it is only societal discrimination that makes them undesirable.  In my view, this exaggerates the social component of disability and ignores the natural component.  Although prejudices against disability make life with one much harder than it would otherwise be, there is still a significant natural disadvantage to serious disability.  My view is that preferring normal human abilities, such as sight, for example, is not a mere prejudice even though people with disabilities are often the victims of prejudice.[2]

            Two: Selecting for traits not associated with serious disease or disability involves a mistake about human well-being.  The mistake is thinking that having a specific trait, such as musical or mathematical ability makes it more likely for the person with that trait to lead a good life, or a life of human flourishing.  But, although someone with musical ability is more likely to succeed at musical endeavors and someone with mathematical ability is more likely to have an easier time with math, being musical or good at math does not make a person any more likely to lead a life of human flourishing, characterized by satisfying personal relationships, economic security, freedom, and fulfilling work, than people who lack these specific traits.  So one cannot realistically be choosing these specific traits for the sake of future people since they are just as likely to live a life of human flourishing with a different set of traits.  Having a more relaxed and realistic attitude about the variety of good lives people might lead and the many varied ways people can flourish will contribute to the well-being of both parents and children.
Of course, having a trait that people discriminate against, such as an oppressed gender or race, can present a challenge to human flourishing but only because people are being sexist and racist, not because of the trait itself.  The solution to sexism and racism is to combat sexism and racism, not to participate in it or perpetuate it via PGD because, as noted above, being sexist or racist is wrong (see reason 1), and, moreover, perpetuating or participating in bigotry is bad for everyone, for all the familiar reasons.

            Three: Selecting for or against specific traits not associated with significant disease or disability is overly controlling and, accordingly, bad parenting: bad for parents and bad for children.  It’s bad for children and bad for parents to act as if one’s life course can and should be thoroughly controlled and controllable because that is unrealistic, anxiety provoking, and does not help people cope with life’s inevitable difficulties, uncertainties, and surprises.

These are general ideas, making general claims that likely admit of exceptions.  But I think they provide us with a reasonable basis for a common set of intuitions regarding the proper and improper uses of PGD.


[1]I am ignoring potential complication posed by the non-identity problem here because I think the non-identity problem is highly solvable (as I argue in my book, The Risk of A Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May be Permissible, Oxford University Press, 2015 – see Chapter 3).  If you are worried about the non-identity problem for purposes of considering the use of PGD, you can simply think about the well-being of future people in general rather than the well-being of specific identified individuals.

[2]There is much more to say about the nature of disability and the disability debate.  I address this topic a bit more in my book, (see Chapter 6).  If you believe that serious disabilities, such as blindness, present no significant challenges to leading a life of human flourishing then the reasons I provide here to distinguish between using PGD to select against serious disability and using PGD to select for gender or eye color would not be nearly as convincing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s