Journal of Medical Humanities

, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 177–196 | Cite as

Queerin’ the PGD Clinic

Human Enhancement and the Future of Bodily Diversity
  • Robert Sparrow


Disability activists influenced by queer theory and advocates of “human enhancement” have each disputed the idea that what is “normal” is normatively significant, which currently plays a key role in the regulation of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Previously, I have argued that the only way to avoid the implication that parents have strong reasons to select children of one sex (most plausibly, female) over the other is to affirm the moral significance of sexually dimorphic human biological norms. After outlining the logic that generates this conclusion, I investigate the extent to which it might also facilitate an alternative, progressive, opening up of the notion of the normal and of the criteria against which we should evaluate the relative merits of different forms of embodiment. This paper therefore investigates the implications of ideas derived from queer theory for the future of PGD and of PGD for the future of queerness.


Queer theory Disability studies Bioethics Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) Human enhancement Sex 



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.


1 Medical science has, of course, long had ambitions to shape future as well as contemporary bodies, most notoriously with its enthusiasm for eugenics programs that arose alongside the development of the science of genetics (Kevles 1985). However, only since the development of technologies of prenatal testing has it had the power to do so.

2 Whether “normal functioning” here should be understood as normal functioning for the individual being treated or “normal human functioning” is a further, controversial, question, with important implications for the logic of the debate about enhancement.

3 The exception to the general rule that individuals are not harmed by non-person-affecting decisions involves situations where a person is born into an existence so wretched that it is rational for them to prefer to be dead. In this case we may wish to say that they have been harmed by being brought into existence (Steinbock and McClamrock 1994; Strong 2005).

4 Both the original (Savulescu 2001) and the revised (Savulescu and Kahane 2009) statement of the principle of “procreative beneficence” also imply that parents are obligated to undertake PGD in order to allow such selection. For criticism of this claim see, de Melo-Martin 2004.

5 An important recent exception here is Elster (2011) who claims that the arguments Savulescu uses to support maximising our children’s welfare also argue in favour of an obligation to maximise social welfare.

6 For a useful introduction, see Griffin (1986) and Sumner (1996).

7 These claims are jarring because, of course, in sexist societies none of them are likely to be true. However, for reasons that will be provided below, parents’ reasoning about which embryo will have the best life prospects should arguably discount the impact of social injustice such as sexism.

8 At the risk of endorsing an ad hominem argument, I can’t help but feel that the hostility with which this argument has been received by advocates of human enhancement reflects, at least in part, the discomfort of this overwhelmingly male group of writers experiences at realising that they are by their own lights “suboptimal”.

9 This is not to deny that people are notoriously bad at evaluating the well-being of other individuals, for instance when they try to predict the impact of a disability on someone's well-being. My point is only that it is wildly implausible to insist that we can have no idea about what would improve or reduce the well-being of future individuals considered in the abstract.

10 At high latitudes, higher levels of melatonin (dark skin) increase the risk of vitamin D deficiency and its associated health impacts (Ponsonby, McMichael, and Van der Mei 2002; Yuen and Jablonski 2010).

11 Yet whether social justice would require that men could become pregnant (Sparrow 2008b) or would be capable of extending male life expectancy to that of women is unclear to say the least.

12 It arguably also requires an account of the normal trajectory of the ageing process, given that what might be therapy for someone in their 20s may be enhancement for someone in their 70s.

13 Importantly, PGD can only affect the rate at which individuals with particular conditions are born into a community. Diverse forms of embodiment as a result of trauma, disease, or elective surgery, will always continue to exist.


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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy ProgramMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

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