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Eugenics, Old and New

Two stories in the past two weeks have raised the specter of the re-emergence of eugenics. In Britain, the government has authorized fertility clinics to destroy embryos produced by IVF if they are found to carry a genetic condition called congenital fibrosis of the extramacular muscles. The condition is in no way life-threatening; in most respects, it hardly limits those living with it. The issue arose because two parents who suffer from the condition asked a fertility clinician to help them weed out embryos that share it.

The doctor who agreed to this—and received government permission to proceed—told the Daily Telegraph that he thinks the selective elimination of embryos for minor genetic conditions is perfectly appropriate:

When asked if he would screen embryos for factors like hair color, he said: “If there is a cosmetic aspect to an individual case, I would assess it on its merits. [Hair color] can be a cause of bullying, which can lead to suicide. With the agreement of the HFEA, I would do it. If a parent suffered from asthma, and it was possible to detect the genetic factor for this, I would do it. It all depends on the family’s distress.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the New York Times reported last week that in recent years roughly “90 percent of pregnant women who are given a Down syndrome diagnosis have chosen to have an abortion.”

Defenders of practices like these argue that they differ in a crucial respect from the eugenics of the early 20th century—a movement held in high repute among American progressives until the 1940’s, and which resulted in the passage of involuntary sterilization laws in more than 20 states. The difference, their argument runs, is that now such decisions are the voluntary choices of parents, not the dictates of law.

That certainly does make a difference. But the great danger of the old eugenics movement was not that it empowered government. Far more dangerous was its undermining of our belief in human equality and our regard for the weakest members of our society. Any number of American thinkers, writers, and jurists, including H.L. Mencken and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., took the insights of Darwinism to mean that, in Mencken’s words, “there must be a complete surrender to the law of natural selection,” and that society was morally obligated to rid itself of the congenitally ill and the disabled.

Such gross misuse of Darwin’s ideas does not take away from the incalculable value and importance to science of evolutionary theory. But attitudes like those of Holmes and Mencken, as the above news items suggest, are not a thing of the past. As the great British IVF pioneer Robert Edwards said in 1999:

Soon it will be a sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.

It increasingly looks like we are indeed entering such a world. But it is not for the first time.



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