eugenics
Ksenia Chernaya / PEXELS

Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics
by Adam Rutherford, W and N, London, 2022, 278 pp.

This book examines the troubling topic of eugenics. The author, Dr Adam Rutherford, is a British lecturer and broadcaster on science and genetics, and prominent UK humanist, who has written previously about racism.

There are clear connections between racism and eugenics: some advocates of eugenics had racist views and the term itself became closely associated with the Nazis and their evil attempts to exterminate Jews, the disabled, the mentally ill and other groups.

Breeding out undesirables

For Dr Rutherford, eugenics relates to ‘the scientific attempts to control human biology and, with it, society’. Other internet definitions talk of reducing suffering by breeding out disease, disabilities and other ‘undesirable’ characteristics from the human population or of improving people through ‘controlled breeding’. The word means ‘good offspring’ and was coined by the 19th century British scientist Francis Galton.

‘Control’ is both the title and a major theme of the book, which examines historical attempts to control ‘unruly biology’. During the Second World War, for example, the author writes, governments like that in Nazi Germany ‘tried to exert the most pernicious forces of control on their populations.’

Rutherford’s book is an historical essay on eugenics rather than a full-blown history of the subject. It focuses on three countries: Great Britain, the US and Germany. The author places the eugenics movement in the context of a growing working-class population, urbanisation and visible poverty after the Industrial Revolution. There were concerns then about population growth and fears that such growth would exceed resources and that the poor would reproduce faster than the wealthy.

Rutherford writes of the ‘fretting’ of the wealthy and powerful about a threatening underclass. Prominent supporters of eugenics included Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt, while Rockefeller money funded eugenics programmes in both the US and Germany.

Forced sterilisation worldwide

Involuntary sterilisation programmes in various US states in the early twentieth century became a template for the Nazis in 1933. Black people were disproportionately sterilised under such US programmes. Involuntary sterilisation continued after the Second World War in the US, Canada, Sweden, Peru and elsewhere and encompassed Native American women. Oregon enacted its final enforced sterilisation in 1981, but some instances were reported in California much more recently.

Although eugenics ideas were also influential in Britain, that country managed to avoid large-scale forced sterilisation programmes. The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 proposed the isolating of ‘defective’ people in institutions but without enforced sterilisation, as advocated by some. Around this time, the Catholic writer GK Chesterton strongly opposed eugenics, which, he argued, targeted the poor, and he was influential in campaigning against sterilisation programmes and in highlighting the value and sanctity of human life.

The book covers, in more recent times, the forced sterilisation campaigns in India under Indira Gandhi and in China as well as China’s notorious one-child policy, which has been somewhat relaxed in recent years. Rutherford also refers to the forced sterilisation in 2010 of 10,000 Chinese women who had violated the one-child law as well as to the involuntary sterilisation of Uyghur women.

Current science

Rutherford’s informative overview of contemporary trends in genetics, the science that has replaced eugenics in modern times, will be of particular interest to scientists. Rutherford argues that single genes could not explain the wondrous sophistication of human beings, nor the ‘cluttered mess’ of complex diseases, and maintains that human characteristics generally have polygenic causes, rather than being attributable to a single gene — contrary to what media headlines often claim.

Gene editing was involved, he notes, in the development of vaccines for Covid-19. We are a long way, he argues, from ‘designer babies’ because of the complexity of how genes work and of limitations in our understanding of genetics. It would, he argues, be very difficult to select an embryo for eye or hair colour.

Contraception and abortion

This is a courageous book on a neglected topic. It reflects, for example, on the links between eugenics and birth control. The author notes that some of the founders of the modern birth control and abortion movements were passionate advocates of eugenics and believed that abortion and birth control could be used for eugenic purposes.

Margaret Sanger, the founder of the body that became Planned Parenthood, believed that the ‘unfit’ should require official permission to have babies. The name of Marie Stopes, Rutherford writes, is associated with clinics that ensure the ‘reproductive rights of women’ but she herself was also ‘a Hitler-adoring virulent racist’. She advocated birth control via sterilisation with X-rays for the ‘hopelessly rotten and racially diseased.’

Rutherford also examines the murky eugenics past of his own college, University College London, and the racist views of its most brilliant professor, Francis Galton. We don’t hear a lot today about the eugenic programmes of the Nazis, so the author performs a useful service in shining a light on them again. To know the history of eugenics, he argues, is to inoculate ourselves against its being repeated.

Discarding the disabled

The book is much less impressive when it comes to discussing contemporary issues, such as disability and abortion. Although Rutherford acknowledges that modern prenatal screening techniques developed in labs that grew out of eugenics projects, he maintains that prenatal screening, followed by abortion, for example, on unborn babies with Down Syndrome, does not constitute eugenics.

One is dealing instead, he suggests, with ‘medical techniques specifically conceived and designed for the alleviation of suffering in individuals.’ The decision ‘to terminate a pregnancy because of a prenatal diagnosis is… an absolute personal choice and should be an unstigmatised right for women and parents. To do so is not eugenics.’ He adds that ‘informed, compassionate choice’ should be enshrined in these ‘extraordinarily hard decisions.’

These arguments do not withstand detailed scrutiny. One should clearly have great understanding and sympathy for couples who are anguished to discover that they are expecting a baby with a significant disability. Nevertheless, as unborn babies with Down Syndrome are being virtually eliminated from many societies, in accordance with public policy, this development is surely a form of eugenic abortion and is very much in harmony with the history and thinking of eugenics. It is not simply a matter of individual choices, which are increasingly shaped in any case by public and healthcare policy.

In contrast to Rutherford, the US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has argued that abortion has proved an effective tool for implementing the discriminatory preferences that undergird eugenics and that abortion can easily be used to eliminate children with unwanted characteristics, such as those with Down Syndrome. Thomas’s opinion in a US Supreme Court decision in May 2019 is well worth reading and is available at First Things.

Dr Rutherford does not mention the pioneering research of Professor Jérôme Lejeune and his French research team in the 1950s in relation to the genetic causes of Down Syndrome. Lejeune was later distressed to find that this research breakthrough was being used to facilitate the elimination of unborn babies with this characteristic.

Every discussion of eugenics, and more particularly of modern eugenic policies in relation to Down Syndrome, should keep in mind Professor Lejeune’s favourite Biblical quotation: “As you did it to the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

Tim O’Sullivan taught healthcare policy at third level in Ireland and completed a PhD on the principle of subsidiarity.