Is there a modern-day eugenics movement?
The concept of eugenics, the science of improving the genes of a population, often seems like a relic from a history book. Before the start of World War II, discussions of eugenics were prevalent in America. Beginning with Indiana in 1907, many states enacted compulsory sterilization laws that targeted people with mental illness with the purpose of decreasing the amount of children born with such conditions. State fairs held “Better Baby Contests” which ranked children based on their genetic superiority, health and race.
The topic of eugenics lost popularity and public approval in the United States after World War II when the word became linked to the Nazis and their attempts to engineer a superior race. The Nazis practiced eugenics by encouraging people with “desirable” traits to reproduce, while preventing people with “undesirable” traits from reproducing through their policies of mass murder.
Yet one cannot help but wonder whether the movement has truly faded out. In the 1970s, many poor Native American women were sterilized, often against their will, by the American government in an attempt to decrease the amount of children born in poverty.
Today when reports assert that around 90 percent of pregnant women whose fetuses are diagnosed with Down syndrome opt for an abortion, it brings up the question of whether we are still selecting infants for their genetic traits.
In October 2011, the company Sequenom developed new prenatal procedures that allow a woman to know whether her baby will have Down syndrome after only ten weeks of pregnancy. Nationwide implementation could increase the amount of women who decide to abort a child on the basis of Down syndrome or another disability.
Yet Dr. Mark Evans, who specializes in prenatal testing, explains that eugenics is more about “deciding whether to have a child based on its eye color,” while prenatal testing is about allowing pregnant women to “understand what their options are” and to “make informed decisions.”
Whether a person believes the abortion of children with Down syndrome or disabilities to be an offshoot of eugenics often depends upon that person’s view of abortion and whether they believe the procedure is morally permissible under such circumstances.
Meanwhile, philosophers such as Peter Singer are also commonly linked to the eugenics movement. Singer theorizes in his book Practical Ethics that the parents of babies born with disabilities should be allowed to legally choose whether the child lives or dies. He reasons that by euthanizing a disabled infant, the parents will prevent the further suffering of that child and increase the overall happiness of the family. This will also give parents the opportunity to have more children in order to effectively replace the disabled child. Though his statements are unacceptable to contemporary society and unlikely to become a common policy, members of the disabled community and their allies have made an effort to vocally oppose Singer’s philosophy.
Diane Coleman, the president and CEO of Not Dead Yet, believes that the views of Peter Singer “draw a comparison to the eugenics movement.”
The organization Not Dead Yet opposes euthanasia, supports disability rights, and takes a strong stance against Singer’s beliefs. The group organized protests when Singer was hired as a professor at Princeton University.
“His overarching theme has a big effect on people who are brain injured or have intellectual disabilities or have dementia, Alzheimer’s and such. He would draw a line somewhere and say people below this line of mental ability are not persons under the law. They would not be entitled to the equal protection of the law,” explains Coleman.
Francesca Minerva, another philosopher, has been similarly criticized for her article “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” co-written with philosopher Alberto Giubilini in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The article argues that after-birth abortions and pre-birth abortions are theoretically similar. As a result of the article, Minerva has received death threats, though she has stated numerous times that the position is purely a philosophical argument and that she would oppose the position in terms of actual policy.
Americans are still conflicted over the ethics of abortion, so controversial theories of Singer and Minerva are unlikely to be considered in terms of actual laws anytime in the near future.
Ultimately, people must question whether allowing parents to select children on the basis of their abilities or lack of disabilities would truly create a better society or human race, or if a less diverse human race becomes impoverished from the loss of unique perspectives.
Jennifer Pike is a freshman writing major who is down with Darwin. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org.