Human gene transfer: Lessons from our eugenic past

2001 2001

Other formats: Order a copy

Abstract (summary)

As researchers develop human gene transfer, one recurring issue is whether it may lead to “eugenics,” i.e., a resurgence of an early 20th century movement notorious for the racism it exhibited and the harms it caused. I ask why the American eugenics movement was wrongful, and how ethical guidelines for gene transfer might protect against similar harms.

I explain what gene transfer is, the status of its development, and two distinctions pertinent to the ethical analysis. One concerns uses of gene transfer, either to treat a disease or enhance a trait; the other is between somatic and germline cells. An historical account of the eugenics movement shows that only germline, not somatic, gene transfer, is subject to the eugenics objection. The historical account also highlights eugenic themes in the ethical debate about gene transfer.

One lesson from the eugenics movement is that an ethical paradigm for use of germline gene transfer should seek a definition of “disease” and a public debate about its content. However, the vagueness objection to the treatment/enhancement distinction asserts that “disease” is too vague to define, and implies that we should abandon efforts to do so. I argue this claim conflicts with this lesson of the eugenics movement. Addressing how the disagreement between the value-neutral and value-laden accounts of disease might be resolved, I consider the views of C. L. Stevenson, W. B. Gallie, and Richard Kraut about the nature of disagreements concerning ethical terms. I conclude Kraut's is most applicable to the disagreement concerning “disease,” and use it in analyzing the “malady account” of Bernard Gert, Charles Culver, and Danner Clouser.

The eugenics movement warns that an ethical paradigm for germline gene transfer must protect the interests of those most likely to be affected, i.e., children who will be born using this technology. I claim that John A. Robertson's account of procreative liberty does not furnish such safeguards. I analyze how the interests of future children might affect the permissibility of choices concerning germline gene transfer, i.e., to treat a disease, to enhance a trait, to diminish a trait, or not to prevent a disease.

Indexing (details)

0422: Philosophy
Identifier / keyword
Philosophy, religion and theology; Ethics; Eugenics; Human gene transfer; Procreative liberty
Human gene transfer: Lessons from our eugenic past
Phelan, Elizabeth A.
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 62/11, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
9780493468488, 049346848X
Bovens, Luc
University of Colorado at Boulder
University location
United States -- Colorado
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
Access the complete full text

You can get the full text of this document if it is part of your institution's ProQuest subscription.

Try one of the following:

  • Connect to ProQuest through your library network and search for the document from there.
  • Request the document from your library.
  • Go to the ProQuest login page and enter a ProQuest or My Research username / password.