Eugenics is not a word to be trifled with. It evokes the horror of Nazi atrocities during World War II as well as widespread human rights violations in the early part of the 20th Century in the United States, Canada and some European countries.

In fact, the two are closely related. The idea of improving human stock by removing the “unfit” from the gene pool was immensely popular in the US before World War II. Many states had sterilisation programmes for “defective persons”. The highwater mark of eugenic policy came in 1927 in Buck vs Bell, a decision by the Supreme Court written by the most prestigious of its justices at the time, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Disgracefully, he wrote:

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

This judgment has been ignored but never overruled.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, they used the American experience to justify their own version of eugenics, which involved extermination, not just sterilisation. “I have studied with great interest,” Hitler told a fellow Nazi, “the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”

The horrors of World War II provoked a violent reaction to government-sponsored preventative eugenics. However, a repackaged version of the old eugenics is being marketed to parents as the “new eugenics” or “liberal eugenics”. It is voluntary, market-driven, and enhancing extension of reproductive freedom. Their children will be better equipped to face life with superior abilities. 

The $64,000 question is this: when you look under the bonnet, is the engine driving the sparkly, shrink-wrapped “new eugenics” different from the engine which powered the catastrophic old eugenics? 

Some well-known philosophers and bioethicists insist that they are fundamentally different. In fact, they even defend liberal eugenics as a “fundamental right”. Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu said a few years ago:

“we practise eugenics when we screen for Down's syndrome, and other chromosomal or genetic abnormalities. The reason we don't define that sort of thing as 'eugenics', as the Nazis did, is because it's based on choice. It's about enhancing people's freedom rather than reducing it.”

Enhancing freedom is the Dr Jekyll side of “liberal eugenics”. Dealing with disability is the Mr Hyde side. Advocates for the disabled insist that the old eugenics and the new eugenics are basically one and the same. They both start from the assumption that “lives of poor quality are in defiance of what a human life properly so called is like.” The presence of disability, therefore, has to be minimised.

This is the theme of an extraordinary collection of articles in the current Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities. Killing the disabled because they are disabled must be called eugenics, they argue. And, though none of the authors is so impolite as to assert this, it is just as evil. The authors cover a number of areas, too numerous to summarise. But here are few memorable points:

Yes, euthanasing the disabled is eugenics

“…why describe these practices in terms of ‘eugenics’ anyway? The reason is the similarity that objectively links the justification for the kinds of acts that have been reviewed in this article with the ‘old’ eugenics. In one way or another, it is based on the preconception of a life lived with IDD (intellectual and developmental disability) as a life of “poor quality”; that is, the cause of unbearable suffering for the persons and families involved. This preconception is disproven in too large a number of cases to be credible. People with IDD rarely describe their own lives in negative terms. Even when they do it is often because of the environmental responses of rejection they have to deal with.” – “The Quiet Progress of the New Eugenics. Ending the Lives of Persons With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for Reasons of Presumed Poor Quality of Life”

Life with disability can be a good life

“… the new eugenics perspective assumes that disability is a problem that we would be better off not to have, and that people with disabilities and their families do not enjoy good quality of life. Our current philosophical and human rights perspective on disability, best articulated by Disability Studies, views disability as a viable and valuable aspect of human social diversity, and people with disabilities as equal and important members of society. It asserts that people with ID can and do live good quality lives, and that having an intellectual disability by no means automatically signifies a poor quality of life.” – “A Quality of Life Perspective on the New Eugenics”

More research is needed into Down Syndrome

“There is still much to learn about Down syndrome and its impact on the individual and those sharing their lives. These studies have important influences on family life, education, health, and social inclusion. All lives have value. All of us, including those with Down syndrome, enrich the world by having lived. Understanding that lived experience and sharing the findings is the work of researchers in the field of Down syndrome, and there is much more work to be done.” – “Research in the Field of Down Syndrome: Impact, Continuing Need, and Possible Risks from the New Eugenics

Euthanasia is an easy way out for society

“The difficulty with legalized euthanasia is that it becomes normalized, as we have seen. This makes it perhaps all too easy for people to request euthanasia, and to be granted such a death as a ‘way out’ of painfully difficult situations and circumstances, rather than addressing underlying issues of inequality and a lack of adequate support for people with very complex needs.” – “Because of His Intellectual Disability, He Couldnt Cope.Is Euthanasia the Answer?”

Euthanasia and assisted suicide (EAS) are not just about autonomy

“A person’s request for EAS is a claim on at least one other human being. The requestor is asking this person to affirm the requestor’s judgment that his or her life is not worth living and to act on that shared judgment. Whether one performs voluntary or non-voluntary euthanasia, the value judgment required of the performer of EAS is the same: in both, the person who provides the EAS must affirm a value judgment about the person’s life—it is not worth living.” – “Lives Not Worth Living in Modern Euthanasia Regimes”

Eugenics is not progress

It seems imprudent to make judgments about the lives of people with disabilities at the present time when those judgments may well seem ill-advised in the years to come. In short, we may look at a newborn who has physical and mental challenges and think it is better for that infant and her family not to have to face a life of struggle and suffering ahead. But in the future, struggle and suffering may not be the case at all for her or her family. We simply do not know what benefits progress may bring.

What we do know is that over the course of human history, progress appears to drive onward relentlessly. We can only assume this will continue, and it seems wise to judge our current actions, such as whether or not to enable new eugenics practices, within the context of understanding and forecasting what human progress may bring in the future. – “The New Eugenics and Human Progress”

Government concern for kids with Down syndrome is insincere

“It is commonplace for public authorities responsible for national screening programs to underline that children with DS are as welcome as any other, and that they should enjoy the same opportunities as other people. The Danish government, for example, declared it does not pursue disappearance of DS but only intends to enhance the option of informed choice for pregnant women.

“There is reason to pause here. A recent study found that the introduction of national guidelines resulted in marked shifts in screening procedures and that this was a crucial factor in producing the outcomes for live births with DS in Denmark. Governments can stick to the declared policy of providing their citizens with the option of reproductive choice, but given their authorization and support for nationwide screening and testing programs, they cannot deny responsibility for the result of diminishing their population with DS.” – “The Quiet Progress of the New Eugenics

The tyranny of normalcy

“Genetic counseling is a clear example of the social tyranny of normalcy that supports new eugenics practices. When expectant parents are faced with the possibility or even the certainty that their child will be born with a genetic or physical disability, genetic counseling is typically recommended. Inherent in this recommendation is the stated or unstated concept of what a ‘normal’ fetus should be, and the notion that the parents are victims of a misfortune because their baby will not be ‘normal.’” – “A Quality of Life Perspective on the New Eugenics

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet