By Erin Timmons
If the technology to improve your life with minimal effort was available, would you use it? What if by making a genetic adjustment, you could extend your lifespan, advance your mathematical abilities or ensure your children will be born with blue eyes and brown hair?
Students at the University of West Florida were challenged to question the ethics of eugenics, the practice of genetically improving the quality of human life, on Oct. 24 during Peter Lawler’s lecture, “Being a Person These Days: The Case for Designer Babies.”
Lawler is chair of the Department of Government at Berry College in Georgia. Lawler has also received the Charles A. Dana professorship, which recognizes selected professors for their distinguished accomplishments.
The lecture, held in the University Commons Conference Center, highlighted the presence of genetic modification within our society and encouraged the 50 attendees, mostly students, to determine their intrinsic value and their way of life in the face of rapidly-changing times.
“We’re on the cusp of biological evolution,” Lawler said. “We have to think of biotechnology in terms of making nature itself less arbitrary by raising everyone higher.”
Lawler used theory and philosophy established by John Rawls, an American philosopher, to argue that a society who operates under Rawl’s principles would use eugenics to correct “natural inequality,” or genetic traits that are unfavorably inherited. This would allow all humans to be equal in regards to genetics and abilities and would increase longevity; a science that Lawler said is only 20 to 30 years away.
“Until the possibility of genetic enhancement, we couldn’t take responsibility for natural inequality, and so we had to begin with what people have been given by nature,” Lawler said. “Rawls, of course, laid a value judgment on nature by articulating the duty of the naturally well-endowed to the naturally unfortunate. Now we seem to have the responsibility to start thinking about changing nature to produce genetic justice—not by dragging anyone down but by raising everyone up.”
UWF Department of Government Chair Jocelyn Evans attended Berry College for undergraduate school where Lawler served as a professor and mentor to Evans.
“I took one course with Lawler while I was at Berry which later led to me having completed nine of his classes,” Evans said. “He taught me to ask questions that I was interested in asking, and then encouraged me to find the answers for myself. You can reach students through humor and humaneness, and that’s what Lawler demonstrated to me and what I try to bring into my classes here at UWF.”
Lawler said his interest in eugenics began when he was appointed by President Bush to the President’ Council on Bioethics in 2004. The very same questions that Lawler debated during his tenure on the council inspired Evans to get her students involved and thinking about the fundamental aspects of humanity.
“The questions of bioethics end eugenics involve humanity and life,” Evans said. “We find the United States now as a world leader, but how long that will last is up for debate. Our country’s stance on these issues of bioethics signal to the world what our stance is and what our values are. It was important for me to encourage my students to debate the answers and hopefully along the way inspire them to determine what their own value is.”
David Ramsey, associate professor and pre law adviser, also attended Berry College and had Lawler as a professor. He said it was important for those in the College of Arts and Sciences to discuss the impact technology and medical advancements will have on members of society who aren’t directly involved in the science of it all.
“I’m teaching two courses this semester that look at issues surrounding developments in biotechnology, and thought Lawler would be a good speaker to bring in and supplement my lectures,” Ramsey said. “With the governor of Florida making claims about the importance of science, technology, engineering and math, we thought this lecture would demonstrate the concerns of those who are participate in differing subjects.”
Ayla Green, a junior history and pre law major, attended the lecture and said Lawler’s outlook on the future of eugenics and biotechnology was both “exciting and terrifying.”
“Eugenics and biotechnology could eradicate genetic anomalies, but it could also lead to parents hand-picking every possible cosmetic trait for their child,” Green said. “I think for parents the need to protect one’s offspring is already an intense emotion and the added ability to alter your child to further protect them could potentially be a dangerous situation for society.”
Green said that her largest concern when it comes to eugenics and bioethics is whether or not the United States legal system will be able to control and regulate genetic modification practices.
“I think there are some factions of society that would be completely open to the possibility of designer babies and others that would be completely opposed,” Green said. “I personally think that if eugenics can save a life or possible provide a better quality of life then that’s completely OK. The hardest job would be for law makers to make decisions that would apply to the entire nation.”