Eugenics in the Modern Age: A Lesson We’ve Yet to Learn

DSC02059The State of North Carolina passed an incredibly inadequate law to compensate victims of its eugenics program. It’s incredibly inadequate in that it only offers $20,000 to the victims of the forced sterilization and not all victims qualify. Everything about this is disgusting; that it’s kept mostly out of the news, certainly not studied in history, the victims get next to nothing in terms of actual compensation, and not all the victims are compensated. Considering that the Eugenics Board of North Carolina existed until 1977 and the laws allowing for eugenic sterilization weren’t repealed until 2003, added with the fact that we’ve ignored these facts, only forces us to lose any moral standing as a nation.

North Carolina isn’t alone either. In California, female inmates were sterilized up until 2010. Just last month a Republican candidate out in Arizona gave up campaigning because he advocate the forced sterilization of welfare recipients (specifically women).  Historically speaking, eugenics has never been anything more than a tool for people to promote their bigotries under the auspices of science. We’ve been told time and time again that eugenics isn’t a legitimate scientific study, that there’s no real science to eugenics, and yet here we stand in 2014 and social commentators and scientists continue to support it.

John Entine – director of the Genetic Literacy Project – is a strong advocate for the “New Eugenics,” believing that with modern science we’ll somehow make better decisions. As Paul Campos points out, there is seemingly popular sentiment that those in prison and on welfare ought to be sterilized (an opinion he finds repugnant). Some scientists counter that if we can conduct gene manipulation to eliminate harmful genetic structures, then why not? Of course, gene therapy – in which a person is not harmed or loses the ability to reproduce – isn’t really eugenics. If we developed a genetic therapy that could eliminate heart disease and that genetic therapy didn’t require the termination of selected individuals, or the non-breeding of selected individuals, then it’s not really eugenics. Even the afore-linked article makes the assumption that after WWII, eugenics fell by the wayside and out of popularity. As seen from the evidence, however, WWII simply changed how eugenics was conducted, but the popularity of eugenics didn’t wain even in the face of eugenic genocide.

The biggest mistake of Nazi Germany wasn’t just that it hated those it deemed less than socially acceptable, it’s that they treated those they deemed so as less-than-human. Hating Jews for the fact that they’re Jews is wrong in and of itself; hating anyone for arbitrary reasons is wrong. But that hate takes on a deeper evil when we allow ourselves to view those we hate as less-than-human. Hatred for a specific group of people is why traditionally oppressed groups of people in the United States have consistently faced subjugation to eugenic practices. We’re simply repeating the core component of the Holocaust; while the methods of enacting eugenics today are drastically different from Hitler’s Germany, the core philosophy – that some types of people just don’t deserve to pass on their genetic information – is alive and well. Thus, our disgust with what Hitler did isn’t necessarily over the idea of eugenics, but instead over how he handled it. Or, to put it another way, we’re not against the idea of eradicating certain groups of people, we just think Hitler was too broad in his selection and too zealous in his application, but there’s no real disagreement with his philosophy.

Of course, merely pointing to a similarity shared with Hitler doesn’t make that similarity necessarily wrong, but in this case the link should be obvious. Whenever we devalue human life because of its functionality or desired traits, a type of genocide or tyranny is inevitable. Who gets to decide what is and is not a desirable trait? A parent finds out their kid is at risk for having freckles, which they abhor and think it will only harm them in finding a good job. Thus, out of “compassion” they elect to terminate the child. What about the growing polarity within our political structure? What happens if an extreme right-wing ideology becomes the majority in a state or the nation? Then non-whites and the poor must again face the prospect of being selectively breeded out. What if an extreme left-wing ideology takes over? Should religious folks and prisoners who refuse to reform be equally worried?

The above examples are not “what ifs” or scare tactics, but rather looking at history and seeing that every single time eugenics rears its head, oppression persists. The problem is devaluing human life due to some trait or functionality, but the reality is that human life ought to be celebrated, flaws and all. Whenever we impose a judgement on the intrinsic aspects of a human life – such as lighter skin being more attractive or being athletic makes you better – we’re creating an arbitrary standard. There’s no real reason behind what we say other than our subjective feelings and thoughts. Even if our subjective views are embraced by the majority of people, they remain subjective. Even if 99 out of 100 people believe that blond hair is better than brown hair, there’s no real non-arbitrary reasoning behind that belief. Tomorrow, 99 out of 100 people could change their minds and support brown hair being better than blond hair.

Thus, eugenics is a failed science not only because it always leads to genocide, but because it ignores the fundamental fact of human existence, namely that life ought to be celebrated. While it’s important to fix actual genetic defects – such as heart disease or other deformities – such treatments ought not come at the expense of a human life. If we can improve upon a person’s life without harming the person, then so be it, but eugenics should never enter into the conversation.