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Human dignity
21 June 2012

The DIY guide to eugenics

Back in February, Jonathan Freedland wrote a brilliantly honest article entitled Eugenics: The skeleton that rattles loudest in the left’s closet. It spells out the truth that in pre-war Britain, many of the most prominent eugenicists were – and still are – heroes of the liberal left: men and women like George Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes, Harold Laski, JBS Haldane and William Beveridge.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat reminds us that much the same applied on the other side of the Atlantic: 

  • "The American elite’s pre-World War II commitment to breeding out the "unfit" — defined variously as racial minorities, low-I.Q. whites, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the criminally inclined — is a story that defies easy stereotypes about progress and enlightenment… eugenicists were often political and social liberals — advocates of social reform, partisans of science, critics of stasis and reaction… From Teddy Roosevelt to the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, fears about ‘race suicide’ and ‘human weeds’ were common among self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement."  

What would these ‘progressives’ have made of our 21st century advances in pre-natal genetic screening? Douthat has no doubt: 

  • "…they would have empowered the state (and the medical establishment) to determine which fetal lives should be carried to term, and which should be culled for the good of the population as a whole."  

Governments wouldn’t do such a thing in "today’s political climate", but what about the rest of us? 

  • "…given our society’s track record with prenatal testing for Down syndrome, we also have a pretty good idea of what individuals and couples will do with comprehensive information about their unborn child’s potential prospects. In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion. It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale."  

As pre-natal screening for an ever wider range of genetic traits becomes increasingly accessible, Douthat foresees a future of DIY eugenics in which "the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state."

Of course, we’re not talking about forced sterilisation here, but rather the widely accepted practice of abortion: 

  • "From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights."  

Yes, it’s much easier to pull up ‘human weeds’ – to use Margaret Sanger’s vile phrase – when you don’t even consider them to be human.


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