There was a BBC Newsnight report at the start of the Paralympics on the current state of eugenics, an idea that has hardly dared speak its name since Hitler embraced it and used it to justify the mass killing of all hundreds of thousands of disabled people.
The reporter asked "Could a new eugenics ... be about to fulfill its promise. Should science try to shape evolution itself and seek the noble aim to rid the world of mental and physical disability?" Professor John Harris, of Manchester University, who was heavily featured on the report, argued the case for revisiting eugenics.
The stated occasion of the report was that it is 100 years since the first International Eugenics Conference in London. The broadcast also coincided with the start of the 2012 Paralympics Games and this was constantly referred to begging the question whether the moment when we are celebrating the sporting achievements of disabled people is the right moment to ask whether they should have been born in the first place?
John Harris, faced two people, TV presenter, Kerry Burnell, who was born without a lower right arm and journalist, Ian Birrell, who has a disabled child. Professor Harris was rather difficult to pin down but towards the end he had to admit in direct terms what he really believed, saying: "It would be morally wrong [for parents] to choose to have a child with disability".
At one point Harris modestly drew attention to his own level of intelligence saying he would like to have superior intelligence and drew parallel between that and Ian Birrell's daughter who is severely handicapped. This kind of argument trivializes the problems of disabled people. And it leads us straight into the whole question of choosing the kind of children we want - "designer babies". And this month another distinguished academic weighed in on this subject.
Professor Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Professor of Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, said that creating so-called designer babies could be considered a "moral obligation" as it makes them grow up into "ethically better children". By screening in and screening out certain genes in the embryos, it should be possible to influence how a child turns out and that this would help lead to a better, more intelligent and less violent society in the future. His views were dangerously close to eugenics.
And the well known philosopher, Roger Scruton, said recently in an article in The American Spectator "The once respectable subject of eugenics was so discredited by Nazism that "don't enter" is now written across its door" implying he would like to see more openness to eugenics as an idea.
All these distinguished academics seem to have no problem with what is an essential aspect of eugenics. It is, by its nature, a state programme. As such it must inevitably runs counter to individual liberty and the right of parents to choose.
This is surely the crux of the matter. Ultimately, it is the parents that must have the choice as to whether to have a handicapped baby or not - not the state. And this fortunately is exactly where we are with the current abortion laws in Britain.
As well as a woman deciding to have an abortion due to her personal circumstances, there are also a number of medical reasons why an abortion may be legal. The 1967 Act was amended in 1990 by the Human Fertillisation and Embryology Act 1990. The effect was that to allow abortion for disability to full term.
People like Professor Harris are attempting to subvert the rights contained in the present law into a programme of state backed "improvement". They presumably know that this programme could never be adopted in Parliament but nevertheless they are seeking to infiltrate their views into public policy. And Professor Harris is well placed to do so. He is director of The Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation and of the Wellcome Strategic Programme in The Human Body, its Scope Limits and Future, in the School of Law at the University of Manchester, where he is Lord Alliance professor of bioethics. He was joint editor-in-chief of The Journal of Medical Ethics 2004-11 and was a member of the United Kingdom Human Genetics Commission from its foundation in 1999 until August 2010.
Ian Birrel on Newsnight said the main problems his disabled daughter faced were not medical but social. It is the fact of lack of acceptance that presents the biggest difficulty. The eugenicist programmes advocated by Harris make this problem much greater for they carry with them the assumption that the disabled represent inferior lives.
Disablement is something that society must accept and embrace. If individual parents choose to bring disabled children into the world to give them a loving family life, society must respect wholeheartedly that decision and do everything in its power to help the disabled persons and their guardians and encourage them.
Although the coalition government would never openly back Harris, his arguments certainly help them while they slash aid to disabled people, for Harris provides the lurking presence of the idea that it would really be better if such individuals have never been born so that they would not be a burden to society. Then we do not need to acknowledge their human rights to full and adequate support.
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