The Eugenics Issue Is Not about Liberty

This article appeared at MercatorNet on 6/28/2019, under the title “Yes, abortion is historically linked to eugenics”.

Charts used in the 1920s at a Kansas Free Fair show types of marriage.

Advocates for abortion rights are claiming that a recent legal opinion of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which described abortion as a tool of eugenics, is merely an incoherent “rant.” They argue that his well-researched, 20-page document conflates the free choices of women to abort their children with the state-led imposition of eugenics.

This narrow definition of eugenics is a dangerous tactic that obscures the many problems with a new, “liberal eugenics” in the 21st Century.

As I explained in a June 21 article in American Thinker: “At its core, eugenics is really all about hatred: hatred of limitations imposed by the natural body and mind, hatred of a God who allows the human condition of suffering and shame, and hatred of any person who has the audacity to live with the unwanted afflictions.”

It is an ideology and activity aimed at eliminating unwanted inherited characteristics in human beings.

Many critics of Thomas contend that eugenics is a state-led activity, thereby limiting the eugenics ideology to some notorious government-led programs in the 20th Century. At that time, public authorities in the United States were heavily involved in 60,000 forced sterilizations. Nazi Germany’s atrocities against the disabled, followed by the Holocaust, was certainly a state-led effort.

Much eugenic activity, however, occurred in civil society, including “fitter families” contests at state and world fairs, college eugenics courses that by 1928 had indoctrinated 20,000 students annually, an extensive propaganda by eugenics advocates, and media support for eugenics, A silent film, The Black Stork, was released in 1919 which dramatised a controversy over a Chicago doctor who let babies with birth defects die. Physicians were enthusiastically involved in sterilizations in both the US and Nazi Germany and mental institutions were often used to remove the “unfit” from society.

The critics also have attacked Justice Thomas’ credibility in explaining the intertwined history of abortion advocacy and eugenics. Paul Lombardo, of George State University, for example, declared in the Washington Post that “I’ve been studying this stuff for 40 years, and I’ve never been able to find a leader of the eugenics movement that came out and said they supported abortion.”

It is difficult to see how Lombardo could make such a claim, since Alan Guttmacher was President of Planned Parenthood and previously a Vice President of the American Eugenics Society, and Population Council and Pioneer Fund founder Frederick Osborn wrote that “birth control and abortion are turning out to be great eugenic advances of our time.” Justice Thomas provided five references to written support of abortion by eugenicists.

Unfortunately, ideological goals seem to have obscured the true nature of eugenics. Thomas cites the definition of eugenics given by Francis Galton, who should know because he coined the term. Galton described eugenics as “the science of improving stock” through “all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have.”

Thomas links eugenics to the ideology of “social Darwinism” that applied Charles Darwin’s notion of “survival of the fittest” to moral claims of superiority of the supposed best persons in society, usually understood as a matter of wealth, culture, moral behavior, and/or race. In a footnote, Thomas points out that eugenics was focused on simplistic and deterministic theories that attributed immorality and poverty to genetics.

The core point of eugenics is not to empower the state, but to use any means necessary for eliminating unwanted inherited characteristics. When Thomas’ critics narrow the definition of eugenics to purely state-led efforts, they also narrow the time frame of eugenics to the historical period of the early to mid-20th Century.

They also exclude the very possibility that an activity like abortion, which is generally enacted by individual choice, could have a eugenics agenda or effect. We should, however, recognize that eugenics is as much a civil society effort as a governmental one. That will allow us to evaluate Justice Thomas’ argument in a more effective manner, whether we support abortion rights or not.

It is very important that, in addition to abortion, we pay close attention to eugenics in the rapidly developing field of genetic engineering of human beings. Edits of embryos’ DNA have already resulted in live births, and more are coming soon.

Scholars who are often grouped under the label “liberal eugenics” – including Nicholas Agar, Jonathan Glover, Jeff McMahan, Ronald Green, and Allen Buchanan – are boldly promoting genetic engineering procedures not only to reduce the presence of inherited diseases and abnormalities, but to dramatically increase new persons’ physical and mental capabilities.

Some, like Julian Savulescu, a professor at Oxford University, claim that we have a moral and public obligation, not just the right, to genetically enhance new children; he says little about how this leads quickly into government regulation and oppression.

Princeton’s Peter Singer, in Practical Ethics and elsewhere, has been arguing that any human being that is not fully capable of “rational” thought, including infants and intellectually disabled persons, may and often should be killed for the benefit of parents and society.

The conflict between progressive historians and Justice Thomas brings up some troubling considerations. Well-informed, eloquent and intelligent scholars can still be biased. As bioethicists, I think we need to take Thomas’s critics to task for misleading the public.

On the other hand, historians and bioethicists (and philosophers and theologians) have every right to hold ideological positions and even to direct their work according to those positions. The key for professional integrity is that we make our positions very clear, and that we do not mistake ideology, which is a collection of ideas that generate a particular world view but are not entirely logically consistent, with responsible arguments. When we write or speak as professionals, we need to maintain the higher ethic of working through our assumptions and defending them with clarity to our peers.

Speaking of defending a position, I’m advocating against the eugenic and other problems associated with genetic engineering of human embryos, at www.humanpreservation.org. Any feedback is appreciated and can be submitted via a survey on the website or sent to [email protected].

Christopher M. Reilly is a graduate student in theology and bioethics at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and holds a Master’s degree in public affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.