THE NEW EUGENICS – THE SHADOW REMAINS
What constitutes eugenics is a matter of some debate. At dictionary.com it is defined thus: the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).
The defeat of the nations which perpetrated the worst abuses on mankind in the name of eugenics casts a very long shadow. After the end of World War 2 eugenics became deeply unfashionable and those who supported it in the first half of the 20th Century went very quiet. The actions of Germany are so well known as not to need reiteration. It is less well known how much support eugenics enjoyed outside Germany before the war and who the prominent people were involved in it. The list is frankly embarrassing and includes many who otherwise enjoy outstanding reputations: George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg, H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and perhaps more predictably Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes. This is to name but a few.
Sterilisation was practised on “undesirables” and “mental defectives” in many European Countries as well as the United States, Canada and Japan. The figures are significant although dwarfed by the German atrocities. The United States and Sweden sterilised roughly equal numbers and it is clearly worth drawing attention to the difference in population of these two countries. The combined number of sterilisations they carried out is over 120,000. In fact the practice did not end in the United States until the 1960s and in Sweden until 1975. Sterilisation did not catch on in the United Kingdom and never received legal recognition although some clinicians quietly carried out the operations on some mental patients. Other forms of eugenic practice took place in other countries including Australia and Brazil. These mainly involved segregation and control of marriage. The association of eugenics and racism is well known and racist eugenic programmes were enacted in countries besides Germany, for instance Korea, Australia and Brazil but these were more to do with segregation and the control of marriage. There were other eugenic genocides at various times, notably in German colonies in Africa. All these practical eugenic programmes went alongside a great deal of research, which we now know was largely flawed.
The segregation of mental patients into institutions was very widespread around the world, particularly in the 20th Century and one of its primary purposes was eugenic; to stop such “undesirables” procreating. Clearly eugenic practises of one sort or another did not end with the defeat of Germany and though the worst abuses may have been stamped out in the developed world (excepting what happened during the break up of Yugoslavia), significant interest in the idea of eugenics has not.
Indeed there is something of a quiet regeneration in eugenics, albeit on the surface lacking many of the inhuman qualities of older practises with any racism very much taking a back seat. More worrying is that it is backed up by much more robust science which gives it potentially more power than before. The cutting edge of this is in IVF, or test tube babies. Genetic profiling and selection of embryos is providing the potential for parents to make wide-ranging choices about the characteristics of their offspring. In the United States companies are performing these procedures and offering opportunities for avoiding a wide range of defects as well as inheritable diseases. However they are currently shying away from selection of embryos for enhancements such as high intelligence or cosmetic reasons such as eye, hair or skin colour.
The possibility of altering the genetic makeup of newly fertilised embryos is now theoretically possible using gene therapy techniques. This perhaps removes some of the ethical concerns about selection of embryos, especially the now commonplace selective abortions. But it raises other questions because the power to alter an embryo makes possible more far-reaching changes to the human population than mere selection.
That “voluntary” selection (i.e. the choice to terminate or select an embryo for implantation is made by the parent/s) is eugenics is denied by some medical professionals but if the first part of the above definition of eugenics is assumed I find it hard to accept this. To me it is a simple question; is this about improving the qualities of a human population or not? The rights and wrongs of all this are a separate question to which I shall now turn.
One of the most common objections to eugenics is based on the religious principle of the sanctity of human life. There are those that support eugenics who casually dismiss this dearly held belief: for instance this, from a respondent (name unknown) on an academic website, to one of the articles which has informed this writing:
“Eugenics has massive potential for the betterment of mankind via eradication of disease, refinement of ability and healthy productive longevity……………we need to disregard religous dogma and agendas, ignore naysayers, media demonization, and plan for our future.” (Posted in 2010) The misspelling of the word “religious” was apparently by the author of these comments.
The consequence of going against the principle of sanctity is to undermine the value we place on each other, by making others expendable. The bullies then have a mandate to vilify the weakest members of society and the wrong sort of people gain precedence. This is set against the desirability of the eradication of disease but the biggest problem I have with eugenics is that the end is used to justify the means. Few nowadays would dispute the value of the 200 year programme of inoculations which eradicated smallpox and began with one Dr Jenner in the 18th Century in England. There are some inheritable conditions of such gravity that few could support their perpetuation positively. But people with such conditions are just as much people as anybody else and discarding them after conception is to me immoral. Correction of a faulty gene in an embryo would be preferable to excluding and discarding it.
Even if you subscribe to a limited form of eugenics to eradicate certain conditions, a whole new area of possibilities is opening up to alter human characteristics which raise other ethical problems. A film called “Gattacca” is much cited in recent writings about eugenics. The scenario is a society where part of the population has been genetically “maximised” (genetically engineered to remove negative characteristics and optimise positive ones) and the other part has not. Tensions develop between them. One theme in the film involves a non-maximised individual who outperforms all his maximised contemporaries but is deemed incapable of space flight because of the possibility of his getting heart disease.
The whole area of research into genes which confer both restrictive and enhanced characteristics is in its infancy. Some clear cut examples are already known such as the association of sickle cell disease and immunity from malaria, both mediated by the same gene. This area gives rise to an important argument against restricting genetic diversity.
Equally important is the breakdown of solidarity in society that results from destroying those deemed unfit. Making the lives of the “ubermenschen” easy does not necessarily lead to fulfilment. Removing the need for compassion dehumanises us. Perhaps if a utopia were to be created by entirely ethical means and everybody was maximised by gene therapy, including those born naturally……I do not know where that would lead.
I believe there are major objections to trying to create utopias of any sort. I believe striving and fulfilment is integral to life on earth and absolute bliss belongs to another life.