Reproductive carrier screening: responding to the eugenics critique

J Med Ethics. 2021 Jul 9;medethics-2021-107343. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2021-107343. Online ahead of print.


Reproductive genetic carrier screening (RCS), when offered to anyone regardless of their family history or ancestry, has been subject to the critique that it is a form of eugenics. Eugenics describes a range of practices that seek to use the science of heredity to improve the genetic composition of a population group. The term is associated with a range of unethical programmes that were taken up in various countries during the 20th century. Contemporary practice in medical genetics has, understandably, distanced itself from such programmes. However, as RCS becomes more widespread, gains public funding and uses expanded gene panels, there are concerns that such programmes could be perceived as eugenic either in intent or outcome. The typical response to the eugenics critique of RCS is to emphasise the voluntary nature of both participating in screening and making subsequent reproductive choices. While safeguarding individuals' freedom to choose in relation to screening is essential, we consider this response inadequate. By examining the specific ethical wrongs committed by eugenics in the past, we argue that to avoid the perception of RCS being a form of eugenics it is essential to attend to the broader normative context in which reproductive decisions occur. Furthermore, ethical RCS programmes must recognise and respond to their potential to shift societal norms that shape individual reproductive choices.

Keywords: genethics; genetic screening/testing; public health ethics.