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Eugenics: Hisotry, Morality, and Ethics

Michael studied ethics in graduate school. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics.

Sir Francis Galton developed the concept of eugenics after he traveled through Arica.

Sir Francis Galton developed the concept of eugenics after he traveled through Arica.

Origins of Eugenics

Eugenics began in 1883 with Sir Francis Galton. He coined the term meaning "good in birth". Galton was born into a wealthy English Quaker family in 1822, a child prodigy and cousin to Charles Darwin. He attended Cambridge University and subsequently became an explorer in Africa. Early on, as a result of his voyages, he posited that humans possessed heritable traits including height and intelligence and that these tend to move toward average results in succeeding generations. Eugenics, as understood by Galton, was the science for improving human stock by ridding it of undesirable traits and increasing the desirable ones. Today this is termed population genetics and involves controlling people to produce desired genotypic (genetic constitution of individuals) or phenotypic (visible properties in individuals produced by environmental interaction) traits.

It is understandable how Galton may have arrived at his conclusion. Perhaps he observed on his exhibitions that natives were accustomed to Stone Age culture and, in good faith, drew the conclusion that his more civilized English heritage was far better. But the error in his conclusion was that those natives were savages and inferior to his class of people only because they had done nothing to remedy their situation. This type of thinking had already proven destructive to both African and Western societies. Galton had opened the door to a racist flaw with the association of members of other races and their readily identified visible characteristics being deemed inferior.

Other pivotal figures in eugenics include men who lead the science into its most reprehensible form. Italian Paolo Mantegazza published his Morphological Tree of the Human Races in 1890, which was a branching timeline of human development reaching its pinnacle in the Aryan race, a concept that would get in the wrong hands forty years later. In 1929 American Charles Davenport, the most influential eugenicist to date and Director of the Biological Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, co-published his Race Crossing in Jamaica, a 512-page study on what he believed to be the problem of intermarriage. Jamaica was his focus because there were many isolated pockets of pure-blooded Negroes, mulattoes, and whites all of similar economic class. The subjects were examined anthropomorphically, measuring body regions, face breadth, cranial capacity, height, and the like, and given psychological tests. The results showed that whites and blacks differed and that blacks, though superior to their ancestral race, were incompetent to whites. Davenport's conclusion was that a population of hybrids would be one carrying an excessively large number of incompetent persons.

Furthermore, Davenport hinted at the usage of coercion, a frightening notion retrospectively that was already occurring during his time. He said, "If only society had the force to eliminate the lower half of a hybrid population then the remaining upper population might be a clear advantage to the population as a whole." This is a perfect example of the kind of population eugenics that flourished in the early 20th century following the rediscovery of Mendelism (1900), which is the fact that genes determine the biological makeup of organisms. Professor Paul Vanouse says that Davenport and those like him were not driven by science "but by a strong political belief and fear of national, racial, and social decline."

Eugenics: A Dark History

The new century marked the beginning of eugenics as "race biology". Research was streaming out of laboratories, healthcare centers, and schools and had been established in the U.S., Denmark, Sweden, and Britain. Like race, social degeneration was an enemy to eugenicists and a bigger foe at times. The mentally retarded, or "feeble-minded", were thought to be responsible for a wide range of social ills and feared to be reproducing at an alarming rate. Feeble-minded women were deemed promiscuous due to a genetic flaw that led them to become prostitutes and mothers to illegitimate children. Eventually, all crime, slums, prostitution, and alcohol became biological problems and population eugenics was the necessary control.

In the United States scientist and social scientists became distressed at the influx of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Though Anglo-Saxons they too were considered radically different and inferior to the Anglo-American majority. This was largely due to their disproportionate representation among the socially defunct. Additionally, British data informed American eugenicists that half of each generation was produced by no more than a quarter of married people in the preceding generation, and that quarter was overwhelmingly located among the dregs of society. If Galton was right the undesirables would plummet the nation into disrepute.

The subsequent history is devastating. Sterilization laws began to force eugenic codes in nations all around the world. In 1907 the world's first law allowing for compulsory sterilization was passed in Indiana. Other U.S. statistics include: by 1924 3,000 people had been sterilized; by 1939 30,000 people; by 1933 California had subjected more people to sterilization than all other states combined. United States sterilization practices had been furthered by Harry Laughlin, the publisher of the Model Sterilization Law of 1922. This law was ultimately the blueprint for Nazi Germany's statute in 1933 in which 400,000 sterilizations were performed. Sweden sterilized 60,000 people (mostly women) between 1930 and 1970. Canadian provinces Alberta and British Columbia supported eugenic law in the past, and in 2001 each faced public criticism for them. Thirteen women in British Columbia filed a lawsuit for their forced compliance, and the Alberta government offered an $82 million compensation package for those sterilized during the years of its law. Most of these sterilizations happened for economic reasons, especially during the Depression; many of the laws reached only as far as inmates of state institutions for the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill. Eugenic laws were enacted as far away as Latin America and Asia.

Judeo-Christian Response to Eugenics

What has been the religious perspective about eugenics? Some advocate that theologians and Christians "sit on their theologies and let genetic progress define what is most valuable in health and healing." Unfortunately, this is very close to the reality of it. Only the Roman Catholic Church has any real ongoing dealings in the matter. Yet the Church's involvement began partly due to doctrinal conflict and because many of the early European immigrants to the U.S. were Catholic and subjected to racism and sterilization.

Rabbi Byron Sherwin, Vice President and Distinguished Service Professor at Chicago's Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, articulates three poignant keys:

"From the perspective of Jewish moral theology, three insights may serve as a rudder as we try to navigate the unknown currents of developing genetic research and clinical practice. [The first insight has to do with] medicine as a religious endeavor aimed at saving life when it is threatened, preventing illness when health is present, and restoring health when it is absent...Insofar as genetics furthers these goals of medical practice, it is not only praiseworthy, but is a moral imperative...Like God, humans have the power to create...In working toward the completion of the process of creation begun by God, human beings thereby articulate their nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God. [Finally,] technological achievement untempered by humility leads to dehumanization and disaster."

The overall religious voice has been largely quiet. The Christian response must judge the issue from the vantage of human dignity deriving from the image of God. Although this imago dei is spiritual, it is nonetheless the sanctity that characterizes every facet of human existence, including the body, as God's own creation; and it should never be violated beyond what only God has the power to achieve. Nevertheless, this is the very topic that needs to be answered. God, it seems, has granted humans the knowledge to do things that once only he could be thought possible of doing. So the task becomes distinguishing between pure and impure motive in a way that honors the Creator and to acknowledge what he has and has not afforded as a privilege to human science. Simply because (certain kinds) of genetic engineering can be done does not mean that it should be done.

A Eugenics Case Study

One case in U.S. history that captures the chilling mindset of this period is the Buck v Bell Supreme Court Case. Carrie Buck was a 17-year old white female living in Virginia who had been raped and impregnated. She was committed to the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded to be Virginia's first person sterilized under the new eugenics code. After many appeals her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. It was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who summed up the Court's 8-1 decision with these strong words:

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"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swarmed with incompetence. 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes...three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Carrie's daughter, Vivian, was deemed feeble-minded at only seven months of age. In May 2002 Governor Mark Warner of Virginia issued a formal apology for the state's decision to sterilize nearly 7,500 people between 1924 and 1979.

Eugenics Today: Positive and Negative

Eugenics today is not the race biology that it was in its early history, but it continues in a newfangled way. In order to understand it better, and to be able to make an ethical decision about it, some factors must be understood.

In the 21st century biotechnology is gearing for a second phase on the eugenics issue. Gregor Mendel discovered the gene and its vital role in the life of organisms. A gene is a hereditary segment of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) coding for a specific protein that directs a function--or malfunction--in the body. Human beings have about 80,000 genes and each individual gene, regardless of sex, color, or heritage, is 99% identical in genetic makeup. There are presently about 10,000 known gene functions.

In 2000 the Human Genome Project (HGP) announced that it had successfully completed attempts at mapping the entire genetic makeup of humans. The work represents a massive process of decrypting two sets of twenty-three chromosomes (DNA molecules) each containing more than three billion chemical units. With this task completed concerns arise for the future that have everything to do with the past.

In modern times eugenics is understood in terms of being positive eugenics or negative eugenics. Positive eugenics means the manipulation of human heredity or breeding, or both, to produce superior or improved people, much in keeping with the definition "good in birth". Negative eugenics, however, heretofore known as population eugenics, means to improve the quality of the human race by eliminating or excluding biologically inferior people from the population.

Fear factors begin to loom when the science of eugenics is defined. Galton defined eugenics as improvement by ridding undesirable traits and increasing desirable ones; but contemporary usage of the term defines the science as dealing with the improvement of hereditary qualities of race or breed. The definitions oppose one another in estimating human dignity and worth. Further, the matter becomes one of subtle complexity in determining exactly how a population is improved. The war is between the new and old eugenics, and it is precisely what makes people tremble. Why? The concerns factor in poignant questions: Who determines what is the right thing to do in manipulating life? How is improvement defined? How can the public be certain of the highest ethical precautions? How is the science protected from reverting back to or endorsing the same racist and misogynistic past?

The HGP precluded these concerns and others before ever starting their work, setting itself apart from eugenics. First, its primary research endeavor targeted a better understanding of human constitution. Second, it addressed the location of genes across all humanity and not the differences of groups. Finally, ethical oversight was a major component of the project. With the mapping now completed, the monumental work of HGP sets the stage for a whirlwind of biotechnological innovation that could only have been the fantasies of science past.

A Better Motive

At the forefront of today's biotechnology is the concern for quality of life. Legal theorist Ronald Dwolkin supports eugenics on the basis that the full potential of life should be realized, and this means taking steps to eradicate disease. This is indeed one understanding of the term eugenic. Then, there is an alternate opinion that doing nothing when the ability is there to do so is equally, though negatively, eugenic as well. It appears that the only decision for the public to make is determining which side of the argument it supports, or whether to remain staunchly resistant and allow for no genetic tampering at all. John Gillott, a policy officer in genetic interests, says, "The new genetics is concerned more with identifiable medical diseases than with personality trait behaviors. It represents a biological approach to biological problems, not a reductionist approach to a whole human being." This helps to further remove the topic from the sticky issue of racist and nationalistic fears although they remain a concern and even active threat at times.

Genome data is now useful for the diagnosis and potential re-engineering of genes responsible for disease. This precludes the need for surgery and allows for individuals to make choices that would permit normal living. Yet this becomes the battle on another front. The Critical Art Ensemble believes that achieving normalcy would not be limited to merely fixing legitimate genetic illnesses; instead, it would quickly be used for either cosmetic or socially determined normalization. This means that regardless of the existence or absence of genetic dispositions to certain traits, those very traits may possess a "social instrumentality" or stigma that makes genetic manipulations attractive based on dominant cultural values.

But a group from the Center of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania answer this with a more objective viewpoint. Arthur Caplan, Glenn McGee, and David Magnus believe that although what is perfect or desirable is a matter of taste, culture, and personal experience, they are not always simply the product of subjective feelings. They suggest that certain traits such as physical stamina, strength, speed, mathematical ability, dexterity, and visual acuity are related to health in ways that "command universal assent to their desirability in almost any setting." They say, "It would be hard to argue that a parent who wanted a child with a better memory or greater physical dexterity was simply indulging his or her biases or prejudices."

Personal Reflection

I favor positive eugenics. The contemporary definition of eugenics is hereditary improvement that allows for the full potential of life, and I find no problem with this definition as long as it is to the exclusion of none. Rabbi Sherwin's words—that as genetics can be used to further medical practice it becomes a moral imperative—I feel are essentially the purpose of medicine and medical technology. But real concern must be given to defining the kind of improvement that can indeed be considered a moral imperative.

I feel that it means the eradication of disease and allows a person to live a normal life free of handicap. Yet I agree with the University of Pennsylvania group as well. It would be wrong to think that there are not traits that are universally desirable because we all envy other's looks and skills. A resolution here is difficult. The Genetics and IVF Institute of Fairfax, Virginia, already offers their Microsort process that separates male and female sperm and determines the sex of children. If the industry is already controlling gender, what hinders it from commercializing not only health and legitimate concerns, but also eye color, complexion, and a plethora of other unknown gene mysteries?

Economist magazine sums it up best: "Most of these debates come down to a fundamental division of opinion: between seeing human life in terms of its intrinsic value, or in terms of its utilitarian value. A gene is either life itself, or just a useful piece of a kit. Some people on the left regard it as part of a growing war between commerce and culture." My opinion is that the gene is not life itself but a piece of it, and that is the only definition (of the two presented in this quote) that legitimizes correcting even health risks.

I agree with Galston that the issue will most likely end with a Supreme Court decision and, hopefully, one that subjugates the industry to government regulation. Here arises another detail (not given much discussion): privilege. It is only reasonable to think that the rich are the only ones remotely capable of capitalizing on the biotechnology so far discussed. The concern is legitimate: Issues so grave as to determine the outcome of another human could very well produce further inequity for the underprivileged. Regulation would be a promising sign for equal access to all classes, especially with regard to genetic health risks.

Note: The article was formerly an academic paper composed in an ethics course during my graduate school career.

Two Great Videos on Eugenics

Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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