Eugenics and ‘Newgenics’ Part 3: Moral criticisms and quandaries

Tuesday, 11 March, 2008

The word ‘eugenics’ is usually used in a derogatory manner, suggesting that there is either something immoral about with the goal of eugenics or that the way it was implemented was immoral (or both).

The goal of eugenics, as stated in part 1, was “to create or maintain a race of people who fit the image of the Wunschbild (ideal person)”. Looking at two important documents in human rights – the Preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are no rights that puts the improvement of the human race as a concern, and hence there is no way that it could override equality, the right to life or the right to reproductive freedom. Equally, there is no human right that, even when taken to its conclusion, forbids the betterment of the human race as a whole, provided it doesn’t contravene any of the rights of the individual. Therefore, we cannot easily produce an answer, and consequently I shall leave this aspect of eugenics until Part 4 of this blog series.

Perhaps the most obviously moral travesty present in the history eugenics is the murder of those deemed ‘unfit’. Genocide was not a common policy of eugenicists, but in Nazi Germany enough support was obviously present to justify it. The right to life is a ‘unalienable right’ mentioned in the US Declaration of Independence and is guaranteed by Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thus denying it to some other clearly human person is wrong. Pragmatically, only the real and present danger to somebody else’s life can justify overturning this right.

A further objection could be raised against the discrimination that eugenics brought about (or actualised) against people with a – supposed – genetic makeup. On the basis that all humans should be equally afforded the same rights, respect and protection, to do otherwise is wrong. This is another of the ‘self-evident truths’, and is in fact Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A lesser, though not insignificant, objection to the past policies of eugenics is that they involved domination, by governments, over the reproductive lives of its populace. It is now generally accepted that everyone has the right to have a family with whomever they desire, and in fact this is guaranteed by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, it was contrary to a fundamental human right to prevent people from marrying, force people to have children, mandate sterilisation and withhold birth control.

These rights were well known, and to an extent well-respected, before eugenics even took off. The US Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776, and mentioned specifically the equality and right to life of all men. Likewise, the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified in 1868 and stated that the State has no right to interfere in liberty without due process of the law. One may wonder how eugenics could even be considered morally acceptable in America and other Western nations into the early 20th century. Indeed, some anti-miscegenation laws in the United States were not repealed until 1967. As the only way for such a violation of rights to be justified was if it conflicted with a more important right, the eugenicists had to create some particular ‘right’.

It wasn’t particularly hard to do so, provided people believed the (pseudo-)scientific reasoning behind it. If one could have people believe that Jews and gypsies could cause the death of many others, then it could be justified to remove their right to life (as people wielding a gun with intent to kill may be shot by police). If one could have people believe that paupers, prostitutes and alcoholics are the cause for most crime, then sterilisation could be justified (as today we remove the right to liberty for many criminals, in the form of prison). If it could be believed that a child deserves a healthy life, it may be considered justifiable to not allow reproductive liberty to harm children by bringing them into existence with an unfit genetic constitution. Indeed, many states of the US and countries of the world still have laws against incest, supposedly protecting the ‘right to health’, or some such right, in hypothetical children that may result. Today, we take issue with not only the validity of the premise and the priorities placed on the rights supposed to be in conflict, but also the possibility of more friendly solutions to the problem(s).

Perhaps, this sort of rights-friendly thinking could be a basis for what has been called ‘liberal eugenics’ by Nicholas Agar or ‘newgenics’ by others (not sure who coined the term), to describe the voluntary control (rather than state control) over reproduction to create better humans (though not necessarily a ‘race). But could this be even possible without creating grounds for discrimination (or worse evils), and could it contravene a particular right to an ‘open future’? I leave these questions until my next blog entry.

Part of a Four Part Blog Series:


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Passive Aggressive Raven.

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