Many people distinguish negative from positive eugenics, and coercive from non-coercive eugenics. The idea is that negative eugenics tries to sift out undesirable psychological or physical characteristics (like psychopathy or Tay Sachs disease), while positive eugenics seeks to increase the prevalence of traits that promote individual and social welfare (like creativity or a healthy immune system).Footnote 14 Coercive eugenics uses force to achieve these ends, while non-coercive eugenics uses education, information, and social norms to achieve them. The distinctions are not sharp, and they do not map onto what is right or wrong in any obvious way (Gyngell and Selgelid 2016). It is best, then, to focus on the justifiability of particular public policy proposals.
The advent of reliable contraception—colloquially called “birth control”—was seen by some of its greatest proponents as a way to liberate women: to give them control over their lives by freeing them from the shackles of continual pregnancy and the consequences of rape. More generally, contraception allows women to invest in education rather than cosmetics, which is good for them, and for society. But some of birth control’s most famous proponents also saw the potential for it to have eugenic effects, since it allows women to decide who fathers their children, and when to have children. Contraception, in other words, allows women to have sex for fun, but to carefully decide when and how and with whom to have children.
According to Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, “Birth Control…means not merely the limitation of births, but the application of intelligent guidance over the reproductive power. It means the substitution of reason and intelligence for the blind play of instinct” (1922, ch. 2). Without contraception, Sanger feared, civilization “will be faced with the ever-increasing problem of feeble-mindedness, that fertile parent of degeneracy, crime, and pauperism” (1922, ch. 4). While Sanger’s language is harsh, her point is plausible.Footnote 15 Contraception can prevent unwanted pregnancies, the social consequences of which are borne broadly.Footnote 16 Since each of us has an interest in promoting an environment in which current and future people flourish, there are good reasons to make contraception freely available for all. This is one of the most cost-effective measures governments can take, and it can be justified by its ability to enhance individual autonomy and social welfare.
Genetic education and counseling
The division of cognitive labor that market society occasions allows us to accumulate vast amounts of knowledge, but it also renders people (rationally) ignorant about how most things work, including the universe in general, and the human body in particular (Hayek 1945). Most people apparently do not want to understand cosmology, biology, or genetics. And they don’t need to in order to live reasonably successful lives, even if their success depends on other people knowing little bits about how things around them work—like microwave ovens, human kidneys, nuclear power plants, internal combustion engines, etc. All of us depend on these things working well, and on the ability of experts to repair or replace them when they fail, but very few people need to know how any or all of these work.
The problem comes when we bear the costs of other people’s ignorance. In a democracy we share the undesirable policy consequences of one another’s ignorant or irrational votes (Huemer 2015). And in a society that shares at least some of the costs and benefits of productive work, the consequences of people reproducing at random are felt by all of us. This suggests that taxpayers should be willing to finance genetic testing and the provision of genetic information to prospective parents, with the goal of helping them make informed reproductive choices that will benefit their children, and protect other people from harm. Since state provision of education or information always has the potential to turn into propaganda (Mill 1859, ch. 5), there may be reasons to publicly finance its private provision by teachers and doctors in a competitive market. Finally, in addition to education, as genetic engineering becomes safe and affordable, barriers to accessing socially beneficial genetic enhancements should be removed.
Incentives and penalties
The current demographics of Western countries are troubling, as people with a higher IQ, more education, and greater income reproduce at relatively low levels. Some have suggested paying people who would make good parents to have children. But this misunderstands the problem of opportunity cost: most people with higher intelligence or more money don’t reproduce less because they can’t afford children; they do so because they have many other valuable ways of spending their time, including writing books, volunteering, taking exotic vacations, and advancing their careers.
States might improve the situation by mandating paid parental leave in the workplace, so there are fewer costs to temporarily leaving work to take care of children. Sweden has among the most generous paid parental leave laws in the world, and it is among the few developed countries with a replacement birthrate. Some studies suggest that strong family leave laws are the primary reason for its demographic stability (Hoem 2005). But the evidence is tainted by the fact that native-born Swedes have below-replacement fertility, and foreign-born immigrants from Somalia have more children, thus bringing Sweden close to replacement levels (Tollebrant 2017). This makes the effect of family leave laws a little unclear.
Some authors have suggested paying some people not to reproduce, or instituting a parental licensing scheme. Francis Crick tentatively proposed both ideas at a symposium on eugenics (1963, pp. 276, 284).Footnote 17 In principle, there are reasons to support policies like these. But they raise real worries about corruption by bureaucrats, black markets for pregnancy, and political legitimacy: in constitutional democracies, controversial policies cannot produce their desired effects over the long run unless there is some degree of transparency and public support.
The rationale for any justified licensing scheme is that some activities require competence to safely perform, and those who engage in them without adequate skill or foresight are likely to seriously harm other people (LaFollette 1980). Some parents lack the desire to take care of their children. This is illustrated by the fact that many single mothers sue unwilling fathers for court-mandated child support. Other parents abuse their children, or lack the means to provide food, shelter, medical care, and education to their children.
The typical response is for the state to step in and pay for all of these things, and in extreme cases to remove children from their parents and put them in foster care. But it would be more cost-effective to prevent unwanted pregnancies than treating their consequences, especially if we could achieve this goal by subsidizing the voluntary use of contraception. It may also be more desirable from the standpoint of future people.
The most compelling reason (though certainly not a decisive reason) for supporting parental licensing is that traits like impulse control, health, intelligence, and empathy have significant genetic components.Footnote 18 What matters is not just that some parents are unwilling or unable to take care of their children; but that in many cases they are passing along an undesirable genetic endowment.
As John Stuart Mill argued:
It is not in the matter of education only, that misplaced notions of liberty prevent moral obligations on the part of parents from being recognised, and legal obligations from being imposed… The fact itself, of causing the existence of a human being, is one of the most responsible actions in the range of human life. To undertake this responsibility—to bestow a life which may be either a curse or a blessing—unless the being on whom it is to be bestowed will have at least the ordinary chances of a desirable existence, is a crime against that being (1859, ch. 5).
Mill expressed ambivalence about imposing coercive laws on parents, but was clear that policies requiring prospective parents to demonstrate their ability to care for children “are interferences of the State to prohibit a mischievous act—an act injurious to others, which ought to be a subject of reprobation, and social stigma, even when it is not deemed expedient to superadd legal punishment” (1859, ch. 5).
For a parental licensing scheme to be fair, we would need to devise criteria that are effective at screening out only parents who impose significant risks of harm on their children or (through their children) on other people. This is hard enough. It would be even more difficult to select appropriate penalties to impose on those who fail a reproductive licensing test, but have children anyway. One way to enforce licensing is to impose fines or other costs on those who have children without a license. Despite its unpopularity in many states around the world, American judges occasionally order “deadbeat dads” who father children they can’t support to stop reproducing, though the order is difficult to enforce, especially since most states lack eugenic sterilization provisions. As a rule of thumb, though, states should apply as little coercion as possible to facilitate the emergence of future people with traits that enable them to thrive.Footnote 19