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Posted on September 19, 2019 at 11:59 PM

Human
Flourishing in an Age of Gene Editing
is a new collection of essays, edited by Erik Parens and
Josephine Johnson.  In the introduction,
the editors explain they are concerned with “nonphysical harms” of
human gene editing.  That is, these harms
would not affect bodily systems, but harm “people’s psyches…[their] experiences
of being persons,” and could impair human flourishing.  These harms could be incurred not only by
gene editing but also by use of other “reprogenic” technologies such
as preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and prenatal diagnosis.

Your correspondent has just
begun to read this collection.  In the first
entry, “Welcoming the Unexpected,” bioethicist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson
of Emory University, takes the view that flourishing is not a matter of
proximity to some ideal of health or human excellence, but is, for each person,
a growing into expression of that person’s unique capabilities.  Accordingly, rather than embrace a project of
eliminating disabilities, society should work to make the environment more
welcoming to people with those conditions—many of which, after all, need not
impair a person’s ability to live a life of happiness and contribution to
others.  Communities have an obligation,
she says, “to support the distinctiveness of its members according to the egalitarian
principles of justice, liberty, and equality,” and “build
environments that…support the widest spectrum of embodiments…in which human
embodied existence can successfully thrive as it is.”  Put another way, we should not be building a
regime in which we are deciding what sort of people we will allow to be born,
but we should be ready to welcome and embrace the ones who are.  In this, Professor Garland-Thomson sounds a
“caution against an aggressive normalization imperative…an outlook of
humility about the human capacity to control future circumstances through
present action…against the arrogance of [what one writer called] ‘the danger of
a single story.’”

We should, she writes, adopt a
stance of “growing” rather than “making” human beings, and
“reconsider the logic of a velvet eugenics that would standardize human
variation in the interest of individual, market-driven liberty and at the
expense of social justice and the common good.”  In this, she embraces the argument of contemporary
German philosopher Jurgen Habermas that rejects “a liberal eugenics
regulated by supply and demand.” 
One can be forgiven for hearing in this an echo of C.S. Lewis’s worries
about “conditioners” in The Abolition of Man.

This is set in the author’s description of her ongoing friendship with three other women, all, like her, married PhD’s who like good wine, good food, and are amply supported by technology and community.  One of her friends is congenitally deaf, another has hereditary blindness, the third has a genetic muscular condition, and the author herself was born with what is now called “complicated ectodactyly,” with “asymmetric unusual hands and forearms.”  The sort of thing your correspondent understands the Chinese to be trying to eliminate through the use of PGD.

A remarkable essay to lead off a collection that appears worthy of careful consideration.

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