Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Moral Foundations and Slippery Slopes

A mass grave in Germany was found with the remains of victims of Hitler’s Action T4 euthanasia plan. The philosophical ideas and support for the plan, Lebensunwertes Leben (Life unworthy of life), was base upon the book Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (Release for Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Life) written by Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche in 1920. The program was primarily carried out by Hitler’s personal physician Karl Brandt who was convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and membership in the SS. At his trial Brandt acknowledged recommending the use of carbon monoxide as a means of euthanizing and called it a “major advance in medical history.” Action T4 initially sterilized those deemed mentally, physically or socially unacceptable or undesirable to society. It then moved on to the killing of children that suffered from mental or physical diseases or disabilities. Finally the program killed any children or adults that were unwanted by society. Over 400,000 people were forcibly sterilized and over 200,000 people were killed because of the T4 program. The T4 program lead to the Final Solution in both ideology and technology. Read the Wikipedia articles on Action T4, Nazi Eugenics and the Final Solution. They are quite disturbing.

The morality of the Nazi party is a classic example of the problems with relativistic morality. It is used quite often to stress the importance not of morality in and of itself but of the basis for morality. The Nazi party based their morality upon what was determined to be best for society. A large factor in the decision to kill the mentally and physically disabled patients in hospitals was to free up the hospital space and staff for the soldiers wounded in the war that the Nazis had started.

Today we are seeing a similar plan being put into action in a way that is much more palatable to the general public. It is more palatable because most people will not make the connection. One of the new areas that genetic research is taking us is genetic engineering. There are a couple of processes that are noteworthy: Prenatal Diagnosis, Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, and genetic engineering to create Designer Babies.

Prenatal Diagnosis (PD) and Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) are very similar. PD is a way to screen a baby prior to the birth. PGD screens the embryo before in vitro fertilization. They allow the early diagnosis for many genetic and other conditions that may be undesirable to the parents. Creating a Designer Baby uses the technology for PD and PGD to allow the customization of the genetic makeup of a baby. While all of the technology necessary is not yet available it is currently being developed. The website for the Center for the Study of Technology and Society lists the following reasons for wanting to do this screening and customization.

Screening embryos for high risk diseases.
Screening embryos for unknown diseases.
Selecting the sex of a baby.
Picking an embryo for its specific traits.
Genetic manipulation for therapeutic reasons.
Genetic manipulation for cosmetic reasons.

The first three reasons are being done with current technology and the last three are not yet possible. Today science is allowing society to determine which life is worthy and is unworthy of life. Sound familiar?

All these, and other related technologies, do have benefits for human life and health. I am not advocating the stopping of genetic research. The more we know about genetic diseases the better prepared we are to cure those diseases. But we do need to be careful as to how we use the knowledge that we have. We cannot follow down the path of Karl Brandt; he thought that because he figured out a relatively painless way to kill people that he was making medical progress. Curing a disease is not the same as preventing people with those diseases from living.

For more info on PGD click here and here.

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