The term "liberal eugenics" does not necessarily indicate that its proponents are social liberals in the modern sense or that they are non-classist and non-racist. Rather, the term is used to refer to any ideology of eugenics which is inspired by an underlying liberal theory but also to differentiate it from the collectivist, authoritarian, and totalitarian eugenic programs of the first half of the 20th century, which were associated with 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 alleged to have 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 eugenic programs were advocated and pursued during the early 20th century, but the negative programs were responsible for the compulsory sterilization of hundreds of thousands of persons in many countries, and were contained in much of the rhetoric of Nazi eugenic policies of racial hygiene and genocide.
Liberal eugenics is conceived to be mostly "positive", relying more on reprogenetics than on selective breeding charts to achieve its aims. It seeks to both minimize congenital disorder and enhance capacity, traditional eugenic goals. It is intended to be under the control of the parents exercizing their procreative liberty while guided by the principle of procreative beneficence, though the substantial governmental and corporate infrastructure required for reprogenetics may limit or steer their actual choices.
Because of its reliance on new reprogenetic technologies, liberal eugenics is often referred to as "new eugenics", "neo-eugenics" or "techno-eugenics". However, these terms may be misleading since current or future collectivist, authoritarian, and totalitarian eugenic programs do or could also rely on these new biotechnologies.
Eugenicist Frederick Osborn laid the intellectual groundwork for liberal eugenics as early as the 1930s when he was the director of the Carnegie Institution for Science. Osborn argued that the public would never accept eugenics under militarized directives; rather, time must be allowed for "eugenic consciousness" to develop in the population. Accordingly, eugenic consciousness did not have to be aggressively and intentionally micro-manufactured; instead, it would develop as an emergent property as capitalist economy increased in complexity.
Osborn argued that all that was needed was to simply wait until a specific set of social structures (a consumer economy and the nuclear family) developed to a point of dominance within capitalist culture. Once these structures matured, people would act eugenically without a second thought. Eugenic activity, instead of being an immediately identifiable, repugnant activity, would become one of the invisible taken-for-granted activities of everyday life (much like getting a vaccination).
Bioethicist Joseph Fletcher greatly contributed to liberal eugenic thought in 1974 when he described an alternative to "reproductive roulette". A key goal of liberal eugenics would thus be to reduce the role of chance in reproduction. His visions soon became a reality when effective human in vitro fertilisation became possible in 1978. Modern interest in liberal eugenics is believed to have increased ever since. Currently, genetic testing such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, have been developed to allow for embryos carrying congenital disorders to be discarded.
Dov Fox, a Rhodes Scholar studying political theory at the University of Oxford, argues that liberal eugenics cannot be justified on the basis of the underlying liberal theory which inspires it. He introduces an alternative to John Rawls's social primary goods that might be called natural primary goods: hereditable mental and physical capacities and dispositions that are valued across a range of projects and pursuits. He suggests that reprogenetic technologies like embryo selection, cellular surgery, and human genetic engineering, which aim to enhance "general purpose" traits in offspring are less like childrearing practices a liberal government leaves to the discretion of parents than like practices the state makes compulsory.
Fox argues that if the liberal commitment to autonomy is important enough for the state to mandate childrearing practices such as health care and basic education, that very same interest is important enough for the state to mandate safe, effective, and functionally integrated genetic practices that act on analogous all-purpose traits such as resistance to disease and general cognitive functioning. He concludes that the liberal case for compulsory eugenics is a reductio against liberal theory.
According to health care public policy analyst RJ Eskow, "libertarian eugenics" is the term that would more accurately describe the form of eugenics promoted by some notable proponents of liberal eugenics, in light of their strong opposition to even minimal state intervention in eugenic family planning, which would be expected of a social liberal state that assumes some responsibility for the welfare of its future citizens.
Both bioconservative and technoprogressive critics of liberal eugenics are concerned that consumer demand for reprogenetics may be created and manipulated, in a deliberate and coordinated way, on a very large scale, through mass-marketing techniques, to the advantage of corporate interests while having an adverse effect on society in general. Intertwined with the issue of "genism", they have focused on its likely socioeconomic consequences in societies in which divisions between rich and poor are on the rise.
Bill McKibben, for example, suggests that emerging reprogenetic technologies would be disproportionately available to those with greater financial resources, thereby exacerbating the gap between rich and poor and creating a "genetic divide". Lee M. Silver, a biologist and science writer who coined the term "reprogenetics" and supports its applications, has nonetheless expressed concern that these methods could create a two-tiered society of genetically-engineered "haves" and "have nots" if social democratic reforms lag behind implementation of reprogenetic technologies.