‘Eugenics is Back’? Historic References in Current Discussions of Germline Gene Editing


Comparisons between germline gene editing using CRISPR technology and a renewal of eugenics are evident in the current bioethical discussions. This article examines the different roles of such references to the past. In the first part, the alleged parallels between gene editing of the germline and eugenics are addressed from three perspectives: First, the historical adequacy of such comparisons is questioned. Second, it is asked whether the evils of the past can in fact be attributed to (future) practices of germline gene editing. Third, it is discussed whether the alleged hazards of eugenics should in fact universally be condemned from a moral perspective. The article attempts to show that references to the eugenic past to rebut gene editing are highly selective and should be abandoned to allow for a more transparent ethical discourse. While the comparison with a eugenic past is frequently drawn by opponents of germline gene editing, the remaining part of this article investigates historic references from the proponents of germline gene editing. It is argued that they also employ different narratives of the past to justify their own liberal position. While such references are equally problematic, some lessons from the history of eugenics will be spelled out that can inform future debates on germline gene editing.

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I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and Danielle Norberg for translating an early version of this paper into English. This article goes back to a conference paper presented at the conference “What’s next?!” Hype and Hope from Human Reproductive Cloning to Genome Editing in Turin, and the Thüringentag für Philosophie at the University of Jena. An early version of this conference paper has been published in German language in the proceedings of the Neue Thüringische Gesellschaft für Philosophie e. V. (2017). I like to thank all the participants of both conferences for valuable feedback.


This work was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and the Dr. Kurt und Irmgard Meister-Stiftung.

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Ranisch, R. ‘Eugenics is Back’? Historic References in Current Discussions of Germline Gene Editing. Nanoethics 13, 209–222 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-019-00351-6

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  • Germline editing
  • Gene editing
  • Eugenics
  • Reproduction
  • Bioethics