Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Crazy Skeptical: Eugenics

Since it’s fresh in my mind after some readings on Hitler, I figured another great topic for “reverse skepticism” (copyright pending…) would be to take a fresh look at the infamous scientific field of eugenics. This particular topic allows me to blend my passion for history and my formal education in medical science, and I’m giddy because I know it’s a lot more defensible than Hitler.

And maybe I won’t feel compelled to take a shower after this one… we will see.

I think the demonization of eugenics is largely a matter of guilt by association. Eugenics grew out of Darwinian evolutionary theory, but it was the influence of things like phrenology and fascism that steered it off track into being one of the most abhorred “pseudo-sciences.”

Let me make it clear from here on out: I can’t defend certain aspects of eugenics. Forced sterilization is unforgivable, and genocide is the epitome of ignorant savagery. These are simply inexcusable affronts to personal liberty, and I cannot say enough cruel things about those who support such measures today.

Eugenics dabbled in the idea that race determined superiority or inferiority, and that a government had the right the responsibility to impose its reproductive views on others. However, this has little to do with what eugenics is fundamentally about. Eugenics is essentially the early study of genetic disease and the methods for correcting them.

Had eugenics not become so closely associated with Nazi Germany, it’s likely that the fields of gene therapy and genetic pathology would simply be known today as “eugenics.” In fact, there is a growing movement to rebrand these therapeutic fields as “positive eugenics,” as compared to “negative eugenics,” which is seen to be the use of social policy to dictate who should be sterilized and/or exterminated.

The birth control movement is largely indebted to eugenics. Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood in Brooklyn, New York in 1916. Sanger was herself an adamant eugenicist, much to the embarrassment of modern feminists. She is infamous for “encouraging” (i.e. coercing) black women to abort their children or to sterilize themselves.

Sanger is an interesting figure. Many of her ideas are incredibly positive and progressive, while others are downright despicable. She is perhaps most famous for her pamphlet, “What Every Girl Should Know…” [About Birth Control], for which she was arrested on charges of distributing obscenity. Perhaps the most moving and important contributing idea presented in this pamphlet was that:

…women must come to recognize there is some function of womanhood other than being a child-bearing machine.
Among her less impressive resume was the belief that ethnic minorities and the poor are “human weeds,” as well as the notion that people should have to fill out an application in order to have a child. Boy, she would have hated the show, “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.”

However, men should be thanking Sanger for one thing: the pill. Sanger was speaking with her doctor, Gregory Pincus, about how great it would be if there was a “magic pill” that one could take that would prevent a woman from having a child, an idea she had envisioned for over 40 years at that point. He said, “I think we can.”

Within a few months, the newly understood concept of hormones and a new method for isolating progesterone from wild Mexican yams yielded the first method for controlling a woman’s ovulation through the ingestion of a single pill every day. By 1962, two years after its introduction, 1.2 million women were on “the pill,” despite laws against birth control in several states. A year later, 2.3 million women used the pill. Today, over 10 million women are on it in the US alone.

So, the next time you’re having sex without a sensation-robbing condom thanks to the pill, think of the 72 year old Margaret Sanger… maybe you’ll last longer.

At the heart of what can make eugenics a positive force in the world is the idea that it can enable freedom. Eugenics has the potential to create options, to empower people to start healthier families, and to fight genetic disease. It can free generations of the burden of disabilities. The idea of pre-natal care is a direct outcome of the eugenics movement.

Perhaps the most begrudging and disturbing fact regarding eugenics is that even the early barbaric attempts were successful. Germany has lower rates of several genetic diseases, likely due to the removal of certain individuals from the gene pool. However, the “gains” are very slight, and the cost in human suffering was astronomically high.

However, there are still two lessons which can be taken from this. One is that elective sterilization or childlessness can provide a social benefit. If you know you carry a gene that can cause a genetic disorder, it may be worthwhile to consider adopting rather than having your own offspring. Even more optimistic, however, is the potential of gene therapy.

Gene therapy is arguably very controversial. Both sides have legitimate concerns, but I come down very strongly in favor of it.

The most irritating non-argument I hear whenever discussing this concept with others is the cliché, “But people will just have blonde haired, blue-eyed kids.”

Would you? Would you honestly want that for your child? Is that something you find to be very important? Are we going to forego the possibility of obliterating thousands of preventable disorders simply based on some misguided paranoia of a rise in neo-Nazi designer babies? More importantly, what do you have against blonde haired, blue-eyed people? Is there something wrong with a couple that does want this? I don’t think there will be many people rushing out to get this done, but for the few who do, is this honestly a reason not to allow gene therapy?

Frankly, I have my own concerns, ones which I find to be far more valid. I’m concerned with the rising incidence of black people bleaching their skin, and I wonder whether they would (if given the chance) de-black their kids. I wonder if any would try to engineer their children to be super-human, physically, mentally, or even emotionally. Maybe I just read more sci-fi than my average discussion mate, but I find the “blonde haired, blue-eyed” argument to be ridiculously weak.

Besides, since I am a firm believer that government can play a positive role, I think regulation of what can and cannot be altered could solve the vast majority of these problems. We don’t have the technology to change it, but we have isolated the specific genetic mutations that cause dozens of disorders, and we will inevitably uncover more.

Some disorders can already be spotted shortly after fertilization (such as those associated with extra or missing chromosomes), and couples conceiving via in vitro are usually only given a choice of selecting a healthy zygote. In a sense, a rudimentary form of gene therapy is already occurring.

The term “eugenics” is, in my opinion, tarnished beyond repair. A rebranding has already occurred, but this is not enough. The goal of increasing choice and individual freedom must always remain the primary goal of any scientific pursuit. In a way, the atrocities carried out in the name of eugenics have served only to strengthen its original intent. The field of bioethics may have never existed, had it not been for the abuses suffered by millions in the name of science.

In closing, I want to point to a largely ignored time in American history: the post-WWII era. A strange thing happened during this time, especially in the south. White women found themselves fighting legal battles just to be given access to contraception. At the same time, many black women were being pressured or forced to undergo sterilization. As late as 1972, a pregnant woman arrested in North Carolina for protesting was convicted and punished for her activities by being forced to undergo an abortion.

Let that sink in for a second.

The goal was simple: to weaken the black voter population while bolstering the white population. Measures were attached to the administering of welfare benefits to minorities that stipulated a woman must “consent” to sterilization in order to receive benefits. It was common and well-known among the black community, and became known as a “Mississippi appendectomy.”

Germany gets all the press when it comes to the horrors of eugenics, but the US was the first country to enact compulsory sterilization. The mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the deaf, the blind, epileptics, the physically deformed, prisoners, Native Americans, and African Americans were the most common targets, and many had the procedure performed on them when hospitalized for other reasons, often without their knowledge.

When I hear ignorant white people bitch about how black people have had 150 years to “get over” slavery, I wonder if perhaps forced sterilization isn’t such a bad idea for some people, after all… though this quickly passes, because stupid isn’t genetic. Instead, I am reminded of the need to increase education funding, and to update our history courses to include reality, not just American mythology that romanticizes our past.

Ugh. Shower time.


  1. Don't worry, I couldn't finish reading this one either.

  2. Gotta admit Bret this and the other “controversial” post were thought provoking.

    The idea of “designer babies” and the rest is a conundrum moral or not...

    It is funny the discomfort the average person has with propagandized subjects like the two we are reviewing here. Facts are often uncomfortable.


If the post you are commenting on is more than 30 days old, your comment will have to await approval before being published. Rest assured, however, that as long as it is not spam, it will be published in due time.

Related Posts with Thumbnails