Star Trek stands out among its science fiction contemporaries for its ability to use the genre to touch on dire real-world subjects. Eugenics. Nuclear war. Environmental disaster. The rise and fall of fascist dictatorships. Trek portrays these as wake-up calls that motivated humanity’s work toward a utopian future in the 22nd century. Having survived a global cataclysm seems common among the galaxy’s other space faring civilizations (e.g. Vulcans, Klingons), but humanity seems to have more unique issues with eugenics. In the Trek universe, Earth has banned genetic engineering because of the Eugenics Wars and World War III, conflicts that are often traced back to the actions of a few malicious, genetically augmented individuals, with personalities like Khan Noonien Singh. These ambitious new humans were considered stronger, smarter, better in every measurable way, and therefore a threat to mundane humanity. Despite the egalitarian, utopian ideals the Federation is based on, this response shows a pre-Federation vestige of prejudice has allowed paranoia and exclusion to be enshrined in law. The entire field of genetic medicine has been banned for centuries because the first iterations were deemed a failure.
On Star Trek Enterprise, in the 2150s, Arik Soong is imprisoned for his attempts to raise several augments who were frozen as embryos following the implementation of the Augment Ban in the 1990s. He believes enhanced humans represent the future, and the technology can be redeemed; unfortunately, Arik nurtures within the augments his own disregard for “lesser” human life. Dr. Phlox tells Soong that his people have used genetic engineering on Denobula for over two centuries, in moderation, to generally positive effect. But for whatever reason, human researchers always try to redesign the species from scratch. Maybe because genetic engineering was illegal, the only humans willing to risk researching it were ambitious, mad scientist types? Soong believes he could remedy the Augments’ enhanced aggression and predisposition for violence using 22nd century technology not available in the 1990s. Too bad what he’s doing is still illegal.
This illegality seems unique to humanity, because of the legacy of WWIII and the Eugenics Wars; these two conflicts are often conflated and blamed entirely on all Augments as a group. The Eugenics Wars featured a mere handful of ambitious new Napoleons and Alexander the Greats, who happened to be augmented, leading their countries and mundane armies into a series of wars that killed 30 million people. While this is a devastating death toll, it isn’t unprecedented in Earth history, and it’s something that could have happened even without the influence of evil super-leaders. After all, WWIII was fought entirely by mundane humans, and had a death toll in excess of 600 million, affecting nearly every country around the world. Nuclear technology wasn’t forbidden after WWIII, mundane human genetic groups weren’t sanctioned for being too ambitious and untrustworthy in the fallout of this unprecedented war. The Eugenics Wars, though, were bad enough that it was decided no augment should ever be allowed to be born again.
On Deep Space Nine, in the 2370s, Julian Bashir reveals that at a young age, his parents took him to an alien hospital for genetic enhancement to compensate for a perceived congenital disability. The procedure improved his intelligence, hand-eye coordination, stamina, and reflexes…in violation of Earth’s Ban on Genetic Augmentation. As Dr. Bashir puts it,
“DNA resequencing for any reason other than repairing serious birth defects is illegal. Any genetically enhanced human being is barred from serving in Starfleet or practising medicine.”
Based on his description, Bashir’s cognitive impairment may have been considered “serious,” so presumably what he meant here was “life-threatening.” Even almost 400 years after the rise of Khan on Earth, this field of medicine is forbidden knowledge.
Bashir himself does not pose any threat to Starfleet or the status quo. However, because of a hypothetical threat posed by his demographic, he is discriminated against. 400-year-old laws based on 400-year-old crimes. By limiting the number of people who can receive genetic treatment to effectively zero, how is this different from an immigration quota that reduces permitted entrance from a certain country to zero? At least people turned away by immigration restrictions were still allowed to be born in the first place.
In the Deep Space Nine Episode “Statistical Probabilities,” Bashir meets other augments who all suffered “unintended side effects” from their augmentations, which were forced on them by their parents before or after their birth. In addition to their stereotypical brain-powers and super hearing, they are all neurodivergent-coded: displaying tics, mood swings, or catatonia. They are all kept in an institution because they are considered a danger to themselves and others, due to their “genetic status.”
Bashir, though, isn’t locked away. Because he was able to pass as neurotypical and serve in Starfleet for years, he’s allowed to continue to practice medicine. Oh, joy. He’s “one of the good ones,” he really “knows his place.” The JAG officer who takes Julian’s father to jail but oh so graciously lets Julian keep his job, says:
“Two hundred years* ago we tried to improve the species through DNA resequencing, and what did we get for our trouble? The Eugenics Wars. For every Julian Bashir that can be created, there’s a Khan Singh waiting in the wings. A superhuman whose ambition and thirst for power have been enhanced along with his intellect. The law against genetic engineering provides a firewall against such men and it’s my job to keep that firewall intact.”
*It’s actually four hundred years — DS9 Producer Ronald D. Moore has stated this was a mistake, not an intentional retcon
What if perennial nice guy Geordi La Forge was going to be born blind, but this time, his parents went somewhere to use illegal genetic resequencing to try to repair his eyesight? If it didn’t work, would they lock Geordi up in an institution because a 400 year old dogma says people “like that” might try to “take over” someday? And if it DID work, with his criminalized genetics, would he be allowed to serve Starfleet only in secret, and if discovered, would all his accomplishments be marked with an asterisk and credited to his “enhanced genes”?
In the Deep Space Nine episode “Chrysalis,” Dr. Bashir enters into a romantic relationship with another augment, who is now able to pass as neurotypical. If they wanted to start a family, would the Federation allow two augments to have children? If it did, would it allow their child to join Starfleet and compete with mundane humans?
Overthrowing Khan and his Augments in The Eugenics Wars didn’t stop the insidious influence of eugenics on Earth. Colonel Green was an unmodified human from WWIII, some fifty years after Khan was overthrown. He executed hundreds of thousands of innocent people afflicted with radiation damage from the mundane-human nuclear war; Green didn’t want them passing on their “defective” genes. No genetic modification or augmentation needed, just an old-fashioned low-tech purge. Ironically, the Augment Ban enforces its own form of eugenics in the 24th century. By preventing any person of “questionable genetic status” from participating in society, the Federation is attempting to limit the influence of these dangerous people with their dangerous genes. As Dr. Bashir says to Sisko in defense of the other Augments, maybe the reason they don’t respect the rules of society is because they aren’t allowed in society. It has been a long time. Maybe this law, or at least the enforcement of it, ought to be reexamined.
Trek’s Augment Firewall burns a lot of people, mostly nonconsenting children with disabilities. Add that to all the people who could have been helped by ethical and consensual genetic resequencing from human doctors on Earth with over 400 years of research to back them up. For a government that mostly embraces the liberal medical ethics of bodily autonomy and morphological freedom, the extremely conservative willingness to ban research and criminalize certain treatments on moral grounds seems out of place. This decision to prioritize a morally outraged majority and their peace of mind over the medical autonomy of people with disabilities is a dark mirror of our own reality. And the fact that a person’s genetic status can be used as an excuse to end their career, limit their reproduction, deny them opportunities, or imprison them is chilling. In this regard, Star Trek’s utopian vision doesn’t go far enough.