Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Sexism and human enhancement
  1. Robert Sparrow
  1. Correspondence to Dr Robert Sparrow, School of Philosophical, Historical, and International Studies, Monash University, Clayton, Melbourne, VIC 3800, Australia; Robert.Sparrow{at}

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Given the morally disastrous history of eugenics, one might have thought that contemporary advocates of genetic human enhancement would be especially mindful of the historical resonances of the arguments they put forward. Two aspects of Paula Casal's defence of enhancement against my recent criticisms are therefore more than a little surprising.1i First, her hypothetical case for sex selection for ‘moral enhancement’ relies on claims drawn from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which are at best controversial and at worst represent pseudo-scientific rationalisations for contemporary social prejudices. Second, despite her protestations, her fundamental objection to my original point—that advocates of enhancement are committed by the logic of their argument to the conclusion that parents should choose girl children—relies upon the idea that parents have a moral obligation to have children that will serve the interests of the nation rather than will have the best expected welfare. This is a long way from Savulescu's2 original argument for ‘procreative beneficence’ and opens the door to a whole series of politically dangerous arguments for a Brave New World.

Clarifications, qualifications and rebuttals

I will expand on these observations below. Let me begin, however, with some necessary clarifications and qualifications of the argument that Casal takes herself to be criticising and by offering rebuttals to four of her minor claims.

I was not setting out, in the papers to which Casal is responding, to defend the therapy/enhancement distinction because I thought it was an unproblematic notion. I am well aware of the many difficulties with drawing the line between therapy and enhancement and—perhaps more importantly—explaining why it has any moral significance. I simply pointed out that abandoning the therapy/enhancement distinction has unanticipated and counterintuitive consequences when it comes to sex selection. Given the longer life expectancy of women—and the intuition that parents should bracket concerns about the …

View Full Text


  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i All page numbers in the text refer to this paper unless otherwise noted.

  • ii However, if there is, in fact, an answer to the question as to whether it's better to be born with a womb or not then one might well wonder why parents do not have an obligation to transplant a womb into a male child or remove one from a female child?6 Until a safe, effective and reliable method of successfully changing the sex of infants is developed, though, Casal is correct that my argument about sex selection is not directly relevant to person-affecting enhancements.

  • iii This is not to claim that every child of the ‘better’ sex will have better life prospects than every child of the ‘worse’ sex. If parents have access to all the genetic information about two embryos they may well have reason to choose an embryo that happens to be male. Nevertheless, given the difference in average life expectancy between men and women parents can significantly enhance their children by choosing on the basis of sex alone. Moreover, this information is much more readily available than other genetic information.

  • iv Interestingly, Casal thinks that being bigger and stronger (more like men!) would benefit women.

  • v I must admit that I am myself increasingly nervous about the adequacy of the influential account of health and disease, developed by Christopher Boorse, which I rely upon here.16 ,17 For a recent and powerful critique, see Kingma.18 Note that the issue that is the focus of Kingma's criticisms—the justification of the choice of reference classes within Boorse's account—is also central to the question of the plausibility of Casal’s various counter-examples here (Equalia, Dimorphia, etc). Nevertheless, my fundamental argument remains that without an account of the normal capacities of male and female human beings, and the claim that these norms are morally significant, we cannot avoid the conclusion that one sex or the other should be acknowledged to have inferior capacities unless we are willing to embrace equally problematic conclusions elsewhere in contemporary bioethical debates.

  • vi Again, the extent to which it is plausible to distinguish ‘species-typical function’ from that observed in statistically normal members of the species in any given environment is a key question in debates surrounding the adequacy of Boorse's account of health.

  • vii Indeed, as noted above, the argument for moral enhancement itself almost certainly requires the welfare of children to be sacrificed for the social good.

  • viii The research for this paper was supported under the Australian Research Council's future fellowships funding scheme (project FT100100481). The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.

Linked Articles

Other content recommended for you