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The term liberal is used to differentiate it from the eugenics programs of the first half of the 20th century, which were associated with racism, classism, and coercive methods to decrease the frequency of certain human hereditary traits passed on to the next generation. The most controversial aspect of those programs was the use of "negative" eugenics laws which allowed government agencies to sterilize individuals with undesirable genes. Historically, eugenics is often broken into the categories of positive (encouraging reproduction in the designated "fit") and negative (discouraging reproduction in the designated "unfit"). Many positive eugenics programs were advocated and pursued in early 20th-century eugenics programs, but the negative programs were responsible for the forced sterilization of hundreds of thousands of persons in many countries and states, and were contained in much of the rhetoric of Nazi Germany's programs of racial hygiene and ethnic cleansing.
Liberal eugenics is conceived as being entirely "positive", relying more on genetic manipulation than on breeding charts to achieve its aims. It seeks to both minimize congenital disorder and enhance ability, traditional eugenic goals. It is intended to be under the control of the parents, though the substantial governmental and corporate infrastructure required for genetic engineering may limit or steer their actual choices. Currently, tests such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, have been developed to allow for embryos carrying congenital diseases to be discarded.
The people who embraced eugenics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily far right racists and social Darwinists but also self-described progressives (though not all progressives embraced eugenics), who often (but not always) had what we would now consider very socially conservative ideals but were confident in enacting socially just public policies, with a firm belief that what they were doing was "scientific" (a distinction which does not mold easily onto modern political categories). Beyond that, eugenics was a mobile philosophy which found support among many different political traditions, ranging from what we would today call staunch social conservatives to the most optimistic British socialists of the early 20th century.
A key goal of liberal eugenics is to reduce the role of chance in reproduction. Joseph Fletcher laid the intellectual groundwork for liberal eugenics in 1974 when he described an alternative to reproductive roulette. His visions soon became a reality when in vitro gender determination became possible. The modern interest in liberal eugenics is believed to have started in the 1990s. It is associated with the concept of reprogenetics.
- Joseph Fletcher. The Ethics of Genetic Control: Ending Reproductive Roulette. (Doubleday and Company 1974)
- Nicholas Agar. Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. Blackwell, 2004. ISBN 1-4051-2390-7 / ISBN 1-4051-2389-3
- Erik Parens. Enhancing Human Traits: Ethical and Social Implications (Georgetown University Press, 2000). ISBN 0-87840-780-4
- Glenn McGee. The Perfect Baby: A Pragmatic Approach to Genetics (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). ISBN 0-8476-8344-3
- Allen Buchanan, Dan W. Brock, Norman Daniels and Daniel Wikler. From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
- Gregory Stock. Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2002) ISBN 0-618-06026-X
- Osamu Kanamori. Relief and Shadow of New Liberal Eugenics (The University of Tokyo) Unpublished paper .