Eugenics – it’s everywhere!

Tuesday, 1 April, 2008

Barring world annihilation, I think it will be inevitable that we will be guilty of something that could be called eugenics. As I mentioned in my blog series on eugenics, eugenics is difficult to define but generally involves two parts, a particular aim and a particular method:

    1. Aim: Seeking to improve the human race and/or to maintain an optimum human race
    2. Method: Limiting freedom of reproduction and/or reproductive choice to achieve the above goal

      The above is exactly what people think of when they hear the term ‘eugenics’. The Nazis, and indeed most of the Western world, was guilty of the above during the late 19th and 20th century. It is most evident in the case of the Nazis, where their quest to maintain a pure Aryan German people – to protect them from contamination by other races – utilized forced sterilization, withholding contraception, control over marriages and even genocide.

      Now that I think about it, one could argue that most countries (almost all, save Israel, France and Belgium I think) still have eugenics policies in their incest laws. After all, to limit marriages between related individuals to prevent birth defects fulfills both of the above criteria. Perhaps there could be a therapy-enhancement distinction leveled at the first criteria in order to get out of this conclusion, but I do not feel that accurately matches what the eugenicist concepts of ‘racial hygiene’ were about. They did not necessarily seek to enhance the human race (or their own people), but merely to keep it ‘clean’ and free of other genes from other races.

      I now turn to the premise that if we are guilty of either of the above criteria, that is still eugenics. That is the charge often levelled against human enhancement by designer babies, and is the charge leveled against the British government for preventing parents from choosing to have ‘disabled’ children (at least in preference to ‘abled’ ones). One seeks to enhance but doesn’t affect reproductive freedom, the other doesn’t seek to enhance (although one could argue that it is still preserving an ‘optimum’) but does limit reproductive freedom.

      So, if I go along with these accusations, there must be three distinct kinds of eugenics:

      • Classical eugenics – aims to enhance (or preserve an optimum) humans by limiting reproductive freedom (both criteria1 and 2)
      • Liberal eugenics – aims to enhance (or preserve an optimum) human, but allows full reproductive freedom (criteria 1, not 2)
      • Authoritarian eugenics – does not seek enhancement or consider current humans optimum, but limits reproductive freedom (criteria 2, not 1)

      As I look at these three definitions, I notice that it is not completely and utterly impossible for any Western society to not fall under one of the three. Currently, there are few countries with policies of classical eugenics, but one could argue that the prohibition on incest does qualify. As far as I know, there are no countries that have liberal eugenic policies, in that no countries expressly allow parents the choice of a designer baby. But almost all Western countries certainly have policies of authoritarian eugenics, because almost all prohibit sex-selection, cloning and other reproductive choices.

      So, because we know that at least sex selection and embryo diagnosis is possible, that is an option for parents. For the government to limit that option is eugenics, to use that option is eugenics, so therefore we must conclude that unless the definition of eugenics is a hell of a lot more narrow than most people think it is, then eugenics is quite simply found almost everywhere!



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