Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 27, 1999
Eugenics sneaking in the back door
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
One of our society's historical blind spots is obliviousness to the fact that eugenics - selective breeding and sterilization of humans - was considered respectable prior to the end of the Second World War.
An even bigger blind spot is that eugenics is making a big comeback under new names.
In the 1930s, many U.S. states and the province of Alberta forced sterilization of the "feebleminded," and in some cases of persons held in custody who were deemed to suffer from hereditary defects and/or criminal tendencies. Other traits deemed probable cause for sterilization included epilepsy, insanity, alcoholism and "pauperism."
While today we have been conditioned to recoil from the thought of such things, eugenics - the front door slammed on it in the wake of Hitler's Holocaust - has snuck in the back door aided by technologies like amniocentesis and ultrasound, which can provide pre-partum knowledge of an unborn child's sex, as well as the presence or potential of congenital defects and predispositions to disease.
With de-facto abortion-on-demand available nearly everywhere in North America and Europe, parents are able to exercise neo-eugenics by aborting babies deemed to have undesirable traits - be they defects or just the "wrong" gender.
With the science of genetics advancing at warp speed, "designer babies" are already a limited reality. In a Time magazine poll earlier this year, 39 per cent of respondents said they would consider abortion if tests indicated that the baby had an incurable, life-threatening disease.
The philosophically naive may consider such a choice morally justifiable, but once society gets comfortable about pre-empting seriously defective children, it's only a baby-step from there to aborting children with other "undesirable" traits; imbecility? dyslexia? allergies?
The "line" would presumably be drawn in many different places, but the real line is crossed when we entertain the notion of pre-partum infanticide for any reason.
Selective breeding is a seductive concept, especially for believers in the "perfectibility" of the human race.
Prior to its Nazified association with racism, many liberals embraced eugenics, among them Charles Darwin, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes, Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Roosevelt, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in Buck v. Bell:
"The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
An articulate advocate of eugenics in the 1930s was Ernest Hooton, dean of anthropology at Harvard University. Two of Hooton's books - Apes, Men, and Morons (1937), and Twilight of Man (1939) -provide a study in pre-Holocaust eugenics thinking and theory.
In the 1937 volume, Hooton laments that as a side-effect, advances in medical science have permitted weak and/or defective human specimens to survive to reproductive maturity.
"I believe that this nation requires a biological purge if it is to check the growing numbers of the physically inferior, the mentally ineffective, and the antisocial," Hooton declaimed.
He argued that "a scientifically valid program of eugenics would enforce "restriction of breeding among the insane, diseased, and criminal," and encourage reproduction in "families with sound physiques, good mental endowments, and demonstrable social and economic capability."
Strong stuff, but Hooton was no racist, explicitly asserting that the "best people" from a genetics perspective are those who combine genes from a diverse pool.
His books debunk notions of "racial purity" with humour, and he contemptuously poked fun at the idealized Nazi prototype of the blond, fair-skinned blue-eyed Aryan, noting that a more typical Teutonic product would be: "short, squat, thick blobby limbs, protrusive abdomen, . . . hair mousy brown, eyes mixed or beer-coloured, skin muddy, nose bulbous, blobby, jowls pendant, lips blubbery, chin multiple."
However, eugenics may have gone underground, but the social engineering enthusiasts' fascination with it lives on. As one eugenics Website observes, "The Human Genome Project (HGP) with its mandate to analyze all human DNA, has kindled renewed interest in the possibility of amending our genetic legacy through preventive reproductive strategies, and perhaps eliminating certain diseases or disabilities that may be genetically linked."
By my lights, this differs little from the conclusions of the man who originally coined the term eugenics ("good in birth"), Francis Galton (1822-1911), fittingly a cousin of Darwin. "Could not, " wrote Galton, "the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied," or for that matter from the pro-abortion movement's slogan, "every child a wanted child."
It's no coincidence that the rise of eugenics and abortionism pretty much coincided with the decline of traditional Christianity's cultural purchase. Christians do not share liberalism's rose-tinted optimism about human perfectibility in this world, and Christian teaching affirms the worth and dignity of every human being, "wanted" or not. The philosophy of Mother Teresa, not Darwin.
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