Thursday, July 2, 2009

Is Eugenics Just a Thing of the Past?

Virtually every single morning I do exactly the same thing, I get out of bed, I do my devotions, I memorize, I exercise, I get a cup of coffee, and I read USA Today. The Life section in the “D” section in USA Today led on June 24, 2009 with a story on the terrible legacy of the United States eugenics program. It tells the story of Carrie Buck, who was sterilized by the state of Virginia in 1920, because she was considered feeble-minded. What’s interesting about the story is that the Supreme Court ruling that allowed the sterilization still stands today. In fact, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In all, more than 30 States passed legislation supporting sterilization and that in the name of eugenics. These were Blue States mind you ranging from New York to California. Even more interesting from this story is that the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg after World War II cited American eugenics as a significant influence for gassing the feeble minded, and of course in the Nazi’s view Jews were considered to be feeble minded.[1]

Bioethicists today fear that as genetics plays an increasingly significant role in science, we are about to revisit all of the ethical conundrums inherent in the eugenics movement, and that in the present day as you are reading this.

Eugenics of course hypothesized that the gene pool was being corrupted by the less fit genes of inferior people and the solution was isolation in institutions or sterilization. What’s really fascinating and perhaps morbid is that supporters of this baseless theory included Margaret Sanger, who was the founder of Planned Parenthood, as well as “Teddy” Roosevelt, a much loved President of the United States. Funding was provided for through the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, and research was conducted at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. It was backed by the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association.

Those who resisted eugenics were considered to be backward and ignorant, and it wasn’t until eugenics came into full bloom in the Nazi concentration camps that people recognized that ideas have consequences and these consequences were too much, so it faded into the shadowy recesses of history.

This story from USA Today was significant in that we just developed a new book entitled Whose Ethics? Whose Morals? Ethics should be at the forefront of our thinking as we live in a post-Christian culture, and that view of reality is that there isn’t an objective Law Giver. Truth in this culture is determined by the size and scope of the latest lobby group. In this type of milieu, you need a resource that will give you the principles for thinking Christianly about morals and ethics. More than that, you need to know that we are in a moral tsunami and cannot simply sit by idly and do nothing at the very base we need to be informed.


[1] “U.S. eugenics legacy: Ruling on Buck sterilization still stands” by Andrea Pitzer , USA Today, 6/24/09, ( Accessed 6/25/09


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Most horror contains a kernel of truth. Almost any good idea can be perverted and misused. I would rather suppress all eugenics than leave the door open for flippant characterization of people with irrelevant details like skin color, religion, or ethnicity as impure or feeble-minded or degenerate. However, if I knew that I carried a gene which, passed on to my child, would render them severely limited, I might well refrain from bringing such a child into the world. I'm not sure it is entirely wrong to say that, e.g., an adult with down's syndrome, should not be permitted to pass that gene on. Those who are born are born, they make the best of their lives, and we should help them do so. But they were unexpected. Why would we take, or allow, a course of action which would deliberately inflict such disabilities on another generation? There are objectively measurable baselines for some very limited eugenics. The question is, can we maintain those limits?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

P.S. There was no concept of "blue state" until 2000, and California wasn't even a liberal or Democratic-leaning state until perhaps 1992, at least in presidential elections. New York wasn't reliably Democratic in the middle of the 20th century -- Dewey was elected governor even while Roosevelt was still in the white house! Don't project questionable modern stereotypes into eras when even the stereotypes didn't exist.

wncgordon said...

Unfortunately once the genies is out of the bottle, it is very hard to contain it. The forced sterilization of people based on the idea that they may create more like them, is a terrifying idea.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

That is especially true of formulating a LAW. Law is a very blunt instrument, and one law serves as precedent for another. For example, we enshrined in the federal constitution in 1868 that it is wrong to discriminate -- but in fact, we do and must discriminate all the time. It is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race, because there is no significant distinction. But, we discriminate against five year olds voting. We maintain separate and equal bathrooms for men and women, although we do not do so by race any more. If there is a legal argument for sterilizing someone with down's syndrome, what is the consistent LEGAL principle that it is not OK to sterilize someone who is illiterate? Well, the latter is not an objective genetic feature, but eye color is. How about a law that everyone with blue eyes must be sterilized? I can distinguish the legal basis for not allowing states to ban inter-racial marriage, from the legal argument that same-sex couples have a right to a marriage license, but it does become complex, and even attorneys advocating for sanctity of marriage haven't hit on it. There are women with down's syndrome who have married, and freely chosen to have their tubes tied. I recall a case where a woman with down's syndrome wanted a baby, but her mother said, this girl is not capable of caring for the baby, it will fall on me, I'm too old, I want her sterilized. That's a hard one to sort out too. There is responsibility as well as right in that question. Once we recognize there are no easy answers, we can sit down and talk about it.