Individualizing the Threat to Human Nature: Genetic Reproductive Politics in Late-Twentieth-Century Germany

Thursday, July 13, 2017
Gilbert Scott Building - Room 132 (University of Glasgow)
Kristen Loveland , History, Harvard University
In both the 1980s and 1990s, German political and social actors criticized genetic reproductive technologies in the name of preserving a human nature defined by human freedom. This seeming continuity, however, belies the fact that the substance of the envisioned threat to human nature had changed. In the 1980s, politicians, jurists, philosophers, and theologians successfully argued for a ban on genetic interventions in the human germ line. They feared that the procedure gave collective scientists and doctors the power to manipulate human biology. In the late 1990s, it was prenatal and preimplantation genetic diagnosis that posed the problem. Knowing that their parents had selected them on condition of their genetic makeup, children could not feel themselves the authors of their own lives. This paper argues that the move to view parents’ everyday prenatal decisionmaking as a threat to human nature was part of a conceptual individualization of threats and obligations that took place in the era of genetics and neoliberalism. In the 1980s, the risk to human nature lay in the impact of genetic and reproductive technologies on biology; in the 1990s, in their impact on individual psychology. In the 1980s, the concern was that scientists would seek to eugenically optimize human nature on a species-wide level; in the 1990s, that individual parents seeking to maximize their economic status would make prenatal decisions with eugenic effect, if not intent.