Eugenics Goes Into Hyperdrive

by Christopher M. Reilly

This article was published by Human Life Review in Summer, 2018. HLR has the copyright, so this may NOT be reprinted or republished elsewhere. This is only for the blog readers at HumanPreservation.org.

We live in an age of radical individualism in the West. Our people revel in the consumer products springing from a technological revolution, with wireless cell phone data unleashing a world of unrestricted communication, entertainment, and frenetic productivity. In the moral sphere, individual conscience enjoys an exuberant freedom from the bonds of reason. Sexual adventurism is not only permissible but celebrated by the media, cultural icons, and even our schools. The concept of human rights no longer derives from a shared reverence for humanity but from the self-interest of vocal minorities. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s declaration now rings true of our whole society: “[We have] descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.”[1]   

This is certainly not the same culture that originally embraced eugenics in the early 20th century. As an ideology, eugenics promotes the management of the inherited composition of humanity by eliminating or preventing the birth of certain “unwanted” types of persons. In the early decades of the 20th century, Progressive segments of society reacted to the irrationality of politics and the decadence of the Roaring Twenties by imposing morally neutral scientific management through the government. This was the age of federal regulation of labor markets and corporate monopolies, with Frederick Taylor promoting the obedience of employees in the factory as machines within a machine. A prominent text on eugenics declared: “Government and social control are in the hands of expert politicians who have power, instead of expert technologists who have wisdom. There should be technologists in control of every field of human need and desire.”[2]

In our own era, however, the technocratic and authoritarian eugenics that once thrived within a collectivist, Progressive society has had to adapt to radical individualism. Even 21st-century Progressivism has adopted the trappings of democratic resistance to traditional institutions. No longer can mental and medical institutions justify widespread forced sterilization of epileptic, alcoholic, sexually promiscuous, and disabled persons, as they did to more than 60,000 individuals in the U.S. through the 1970s[EF1] . Public calls in America by Ivy League darlings and Nobel Prize winners for euthanasia of the “unfit” and killing of the most “unwanted” 10 percent of the population have been quietly forgotten after our wartime enemies, the German Nazis, put such ideas into action on a mass scale.[3]

After decades of embarrassed silence, however, eugenicists have regrouped. Today, influential publishers and journals call for a “liberal eugenics” in which individual mothers make supposedly free choices to kill or prevent the birth of human beings that may experience disabilities, inherited “diseases,” or other “abnormalities.”[4] With the rapidly developing capability of genetic scientists to manipulate the genetic composition of unborn humans, liberal eugenicists forcefully argue for the rights of parents (those privileged enough to afford it) to grant extraordinary intellectual and physical capabilities to their children. Under the guise of parental rights, however, liberal eugenics deteriorates into illiberal tyranny when eugenicists demand a government-imposed “obligation to enhance” as well as arguing for universal subsidies for genetic enhancement (to be administered, of course, by yet more bureaucratic technocrats).[5]

It is no coincidence that the resurgence of eugenics has occurred as abortion has gained legal status and solid judicial protection since the 1970s. Given this new setting, forced sterilization has become the less palatable eugenics option. In an era when abortion is championed as an individual right for women, genetic testing of the unborn increasingly identifies abortion-vulnerable embryos with supposedly unwanted characteristics like disabilities. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg admitted: “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.”[6]

The development of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to identify and eliminate human embryos with disabling inherited characteristics has been especially efficient in destroying embryos out of sight and mind of the parents. Not surprisingly, the scientist who developed IVF in 1978 was a publicly active member of the British Eugenics Society.[7] In the IVF procedure, multiple human embryos are usually created to maximize the odds of success, which is generally understood not just as a live birth but the birth of a healthy, non-disabled child. PGD identifies the embryos that may have inherited disabling characteristics and therefore are not selected for implantation in the mother’s uterus; not making the cut, these embryos are discarded, frozen, or destroyed in research that ends in mutilation and death for the embryo.

Nowhere is the current success of eugenics, facilitated by parents’ choices of abortion and IVF, more evident than in the case of persons with Down syndrome (DS). In a recent article published by the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, I demonstrated that many medical professionals are pursuing an effective eugenics agenda against the prevalence of DS in our society.[8] Certain medical professionals hold extraordinarily negative perspectives on raising a child with DS. Studies have shown that healthcare providers strongly emphasize the negative aspects of parenting a child with DS over the positive aspects.[9] In one study, 48 percent of genetic counselors made such negative appraisals, compared to only 6 percent of mothers and 17 percent of nurses.[10] Genetic counselors encourage abortion in roughly half of the cases.[11]

Negative attitudes accompany poor counseling and inadequate information for parents, and this lack of information encourages parents’ negative feelings about the effects of welcoming a child with DS into their family.[12] Mothers are more likely to terminate the pregnancy when less information, still highly negative, is provided about disability-related services.[13]Only 66 percent of mothers pregnant with children diagnosed with DS were notified by any healthcare provider of the option to continue their pregnancy.[14]Also, 46 percent of abortion-preferring specialists deny any responsibility to provide a consultation to the parents before a decision to kill the preborn fetus. Even 25 percent of the fetal care pediatric specialists ignore this responsibility.[15]

The negative appraisals by healthcare professionals of actual parental experiences are simply inaccurate. Reportedly, 99 percent of the parents of born children with DS love their offspring, and 88 percent of siblings say they are better people because of their brother or sister with DS.[16] This nearly universal positive attitude between siblings is extraordinary.

Certain physicians directly impact the number of abortions. For example, the preference for aborting a DS child is higher among maternal-fetal medicine specialists than among fetal care pediatric specialists.[17] Predictably, the termination rates are more than doubled for patients of maternal-fetal medicine specialists.[18]

Medical professionals often advocate enhanced screening technologies specifically so that more children with DS will be aborted, since the populations of persons with DS and Fragile X syndrome have been considered to be public health problems.[19] More thorough testing is believed to spare society the supposed financial costs of DS.[20] Because about half of women willing to consider abortion would only seek an abortion in the first trimester, emphasis on developing the accuracy of first-trimester testing increases the number of abortions of fetuses with DS.[21] Companies selling genetic testing services claim to help parents have only “healthy” children, implying the undesirability of any child that receives a positive test result for some characteristic termed an “abnormality.”[22]

If a child tests positive for DS, then the option of abortion becomes much more likely. Only a quarter to a third of nonpregnant people say they would abort their fetus if he or she tested positive for DS, yet almost all women choose abortion when tests actually do indicate DS.[23] Parents who receive false positive blood tests for chromosomal disorders also abort their child around 6.2 percent of the time without seeking confirmation from more reliable tests (not including abortions following indications of DS through ultrasounds).[24]

We can also show that parents independently pursue a eugenics agenda when they hope to euthanize—through abortion—an unborn child with a disability. In many cases, unborn children are killed specifically because they have the potential to be disabled or are perceived as failing to thrive in some way. Parents believe that the potential disabilities or afflictions of the unborn children—and of the children in later stages outside the womb—will unacceptably undermine the quality of life of the parents or of the children themselves. Close to 90 percent of diagnosed unborn children with Down syndrome are aborted, with a similar figure for anencephaly and a large majority for spina bifida. The pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute reports that around 27,000 American children were aborted in 2016 alone due to a concern about fetal health problems. 

The motivation for such abortions is not solely based on the interests of the mothers. In a 2007 study of the reasons for aborting children that tested positive for Down syndrome, concern for the quality of life of the child was the most frequently mentioned.[25] Parents with an unborn child diagnosed as having a fetal abnormality weighed the perceived burden of disability on the child just as heavily as they considered their own welfare.[26] Of women choosing to abort a child diagnosed with Down syndrome, nearly half base their decision on society’s very low respect for persons with the genetic condition.[27] A 2003 study by Special Olympics showed that 88 percent of the public felt that neighbors’ negative attitudes toward persons with an intellectual disability posed an obstacle to inclusion (53 percent felt it was a major obstacle), and 94 percent (66 percent) expected the same from students’ attitudes.[28] The survey also found that 91 percent saw a lack of community resources as an obstacle, and 96 percent were concerned about deficient educational resources.

Arguments for the euthanasia of unborn children are common and accepted in the mainstream of public opinion. In 2003, when campaigning for president of the United States, Hillary Clinton argued that the availability of partial-birth abortion—a particularly violent procedure that kills a baby partly out of the womb—was necessary for eliminating disabled children; she claimed that women should not be “forced” to carry a “child with severe abnormalities.”[29] Many people and organizations that defended partial-birth abortion until it became illegal in 2007, such as Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, have shared Clinton’s view that the procedure is needed to kill disabled or otherwise unwanted children. Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has received public sanction and professional stardom for arguing that abortion, and even infanticide, should be pursued based on the practical interests of the parents and the economic priorities of society. Singer’s justification for his arguments is the claimed “zero quality of life” of children who lack rationality and self-consciousness.[30] 

It is high time for concerted action against eugenics by a coalition of persons and groups who defend the dignity of human life or fear coercive attempts to manipulate the genetic composition of humanity. Although abortion and IVF are currently the dominant mechanisms for enacting a eugenics agenda, opposition to eugenics is not simply a matter of opposing death for the unborn. In the past, governments and physicians pursued eugenics through euthanasia of born persons, forced sterilization, psychiatric surgery, and restrictive immigration policies. Today, international population control efforts include targeted promotion of birth control and abortion-inducing vaccines. Some countries are returning to euthanasia of the disabled, ill, and elderly, sometimes including children. The United States has a history of subsidizing or pressuring the poor to accept birth control along with welfare benefits, and instances of forced sterilization continue.

At the heart of eugenics is a hatred for human “imperfection” and a utopian desire for godless supremacy. This utopian illusion will only grow as genetic scientists and the wizards of artificial intelligence make grandiose claims about a post-human future filled with enhanced capabilities and computing networks that out-think us. The emerging counterpart to parents being manipulated into culling unwanted types of offspring is signaled by a Chinese scientist’s announcement in November 2018 of the first creation of “designer babies,” with potentially disastrous implications for the overall genetic composition of descendants. Our society is faced with an urgent decision based on how and why we value our human nature, and whether we want to protect it.

The ugly self-hatred of eugenics must be countered with a vigorous celebration of human dignity. Opposition to eugenics works to protect vulnerable and genetically different populations from being excluded from the human community[EF2] . As opponents of eugenics, we reject simplistic, reductionist definitions of individuals’ human nature that refer only to certain genetic traits. We deny that immorality, poverty, political struggle, and criminality can be managed with genetic solutions rather than a real commitment to social policies that balance prudence, fairness, and compassion.

The resurgence of eugenics forces a stark recognition of the fundamental values that our society prefers to sidestep. Our role is to do the hard work of persuading secular Americans of transcendental values that give substance to the concept of “human rights.” Opponents of eugenics must express clearly and persuasively the reasons for the infinite value of a unique and unrepeatable human being. We must look into the eyes of a parent or transhumanist who is excited about genetic enhancement of an unborn child and say “no.” We must make the case for humanity that is not beholden to a shallow (utilitarian) concept of persons as merely capable, rational, and useful elements of a population.

Even the champions of secular individual rights understand that they attribute such rights to a person who somehow “deserves” a certain dignity. However, agreeing upon such human dignity requires the embrace of a communal understanding of the basis of such rights. Our opposition to eugenics must employ the language of individual rights and its logical implications to emphasize the infinite, unrepeatable dignity of all human beings of all types. By doing so, we can challenge our society to re-imagine human rights that are grounded solely in the human nature that is being threatened. Ultimately, we can re-educate a despairing and alienated people to abandon the pursuit of genetic purity and embrace each other in a heroic struggle of virtue. By gazing into the eyes of their neighbor and recognizing their own reflection, our people will learn to love again.      

NOTES


[1]. Justice Antonin Scalia, Minority Opinion, Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

[2]. Albert Wiggam, The New Decalogue of Science (New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1923), 277.

[3]. Edwin Black, War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (Washington, DC: Dialog Press, 2012), 57-59.

[4]. Jeff McMahan, “Cognitive Disability and Cognitive Enhancement,” Metaphilosophy, 40:3-4 (2009), 582-605.
Nicholas Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. (Cambridge: Blackwell, 2004).  
Martin Gunderson, “Seeking Perfection: A Kantian Look at Human Genetic Engineering,” in Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, 28, (2007), 87-102.
Allen Buchanan, Beyond Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Jonathan Glover, Choosing Children: Genes, Disability and Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[5]. Julian Savulescu, “Why I Believe Parents Are Morally Obliged to Genetically Modify Their Children,” Times Higher Education Supplement (November 5, 2004), 16.
Buchanan (2011), 128, 255.

[6]. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, quoted in Emily Bazelon, “The Place of Women on the Court,” the New York Times Magazine (July 7, 2009).

[7]. Osagie K. Obasogie, “The Eugenics Legacy of the Nobelist Who Fathered IVF,” Scientific American (October 4, 2013).

[8]. Christopher M. Reilly, “Medical Professionals as Agents of Eugenics: Abortion Counseling for Down Syndrome,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 18.2 (Summer 2018), 237-246.

[9]. E. Choi, Y. Lee, and I. Yoo, “Factors Associated with Emotional Response of Parents at the Time of Diagnosis of Down Syndrome,” Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing, 16 (2010), 113-120.

[10]. W. Carl Cooley, Elizabeth Graham, John Moeschler, and John Graham, Jr., “Reactions of Mothers and Medical Professionals to a Film about Down’s Syndrome,” American Journal of Disabled Children, 144 (1990), 1112–1116.

[11]. Susan Markens, “’Is This Something You Want?’: Genetic Counselors’ Accounts of Their Role in Prenatal Decision Making,” Sociological Forum, 28(3) (2013), 431-451.

[12]. E.K. Choi, et al. (2010), 113-120.

[13]. Christy Roberts, Laura Stough, and Linda Parrish, “The role of genetic counseling in the elective termination of pregnancies involving fetuses with disabilities,” Journal of Special Education 36:1 (2002), 48-55.

[14]. Marijke Korenromp, Godelieve Page-Christiaens, Jan van den Bout, Eduard Mulder, and Gerard Visser, “Maternal Decision to Terminate Pregnancy after a Diagnosis of Down Syndrome,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 196 (2007), 149.

[15]. Stephen Brown, Jeffrey Ecker, Johanna Ward, Elkan Halpern, Sadath Sayeed, Terry Buchmiller, Christine Mitchell, and Karen Donelan, “Prenatally Diagnosed Fetal Conditions in the Age of Fetal Care: Does Who Counsels Matter?,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 206:5 (2012), 409.

[16]. Brian Skotko, Susan Levine, and Richard Goldstein, “Having a Son or Daughter with Down Syndrome: Perspectives from Mothers and Fathers,” American Journal of Medical Genetics, 155 (2011), 2335-2347.

[17]. Brian Skotko, Susan Levine, and Richard Goldstein, “Having a Brother or Sister with Down Syndrome: Perspectives from Siblings,” American Journal of Medical Genetics, 155 (2011), 2348-2355.

[18]. Brown, et al. (2012), 409.

[19]. Brown, et al. (2012), 409.

[20]. Ilana Lowy, “Prenatal Diagnosis: The Irresistible Rise of the ‘Visible Fetus,’” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 66 (December 2017), 290-299.

[21]. Suzanne Truler and Jeane Beatty-DeSana, “Fragile X Syndrome: A Public Health Concern,” American Journal of Public Health, 75:7 (July 1985), 771-772.

[22]. Tryfon Beazoglou, Dennis Heffley, John Kiriopoulos, Anthony Vintzileos, and Peter Benn, “Economic Evaluation of Prenatal Screening for Down Syndrome in the U.S.A.,” Prenatal Diagnosis, 12 (1998), 1241-1245.

[23]. Mary A. Crossley, “Choice, Conscience, and Context,” Hastings Law Journal, 47 (1996), 1230-34.

[24]. George Estreich, “Prenatal Screening: Oversold and Misunderstood,” Center for Genetics and Society, (December 16, 2014), https://www.geneticsandsociety.org/.

[25]. Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, American Medical Association, “Ethical Issues Related to

Prenatal Genetic Testing,” Archives of Family Medicine, 4 (1994), 633-35.

[26]. Hyunkyung Choi, Marcia Van Riper, and Suzanne Thoyre, “Decision making Following a Prenatal Diagnosis of Down Syndrome: An Integrative Review,” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 57 (2) (March-April 2012), 156-164.

[27]. Beth Daley, Prenatal Screening: Oversold and Misunderstood (New England Center for Investigative Reporting, December 13, 2014).

[28]. Special Olympics, Multinational Study of Attitudes toward Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities (June, 2003).

[29]. Hillary Clinton, quoted in George Neumayr, “The New Eugenics,” The American Spectator (June, 2013).

[30].  Peter Singer, on Aaron Klein Investigative Radio (April 16, 2015).

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