Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

I agree with Norman Podhoretz’s assertion [“Beyond ZPG,” May] that “we may be dealing here not merely with an effort to control the size of the population but with an effort to control its character; not merely with an effort to control the quality of life but with an effort to control the quality of the human ‘stock’ itself.” But Mr. Podhoretz’s modern history goes astray, especially where American eugenic history is concerned. “The last time such an effort was made, of course, was by the Nazis,” he writes, “and so horrible were the consequences that many people assumed it would never be tried again. . . .”

What he does not consider is the history of eugenics and the extreme hereditarian attitudes in this country which long predated Hitler and the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany. The notion of ridding America of its “defective” stock, or in the language of the earlier extreme hereditarians, “purifying” it of its “cacogenic” or socially inadequate categories, led the eugenics section of the American Breeders’ Association to state in 1914: “Society must look upon germ-plasm as belonging to society and not merely to the individual who carries it” (Report on the Best Practical Means of Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm of the American Population). A “model” state eugenic-sterilization law was added to this report which included, among others, such categories as the feeble-minded, insane, epileptic, criminal, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent (including “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, the homeless, tramps, and paupers”). As a result of this activity a rash of compulsory-sterilization, marriage, and restrictive-immigration laws were passed during the early decades of this century in many states. Most states applied these laws only to the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, and the epileptic if they were covered by the statute. J. H. Landman, in his 1932 study, Human Sterilization: The History of the Sexual Sterilization Movement, reported 34 distinct classes of sterilizable persons in the 24 states with compulsory sterilization laws at that time (26 states still have sterilization laws of various kinds, most of them compulsory).

The extreme hereditarians in America never reached the terrifying excesses of the Nazis in large part because our eugenic laws were unable to go beyond eugenic sterilization and marriage (negative eugenic) expectations, and because of what the late Havelock Ellis predicted would happen, namely, that our legalistic tradition would kill or hamstring the operation of these laws. . . . In some cases this was true, but the United States Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell (1927) upheld the constitutionality of compulsory state eugenic-sterilization laws. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “. . . The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

From 1907, when the first state-sterilization law was passed in Indiana, to the mid-1960’s, when cumulative state statistics were no longer compiled, upward of 65,000 persons were sterilized. And a large percentage of these compulsory sterilizations were not on the mentally retarded, but on the mentally ill. . . . Thus, the notion of fitness for parenthood . . . is very much a part of the American tradition and has been practiced in many of our states since 1907 (and extra-legally as far back as the 1880’s).

We are now observing a return to many of the arguments of the earlier extreme hereditarians. Moreover, the new hereditarians are armed, as Mr. Podhoretz notes, with better scientific knowledge of human genetics and with unprecedented new technologies for what some call biogenetic engineering. Mr. Podhoretz’s fears are far from unfounded; but many scientists are as alarmed as he is at the potential consequences of applying these scientific technologies without an awareness of their consequences for human freedom, dignity, and individual worth.

Dr. Leon Kass, executive secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, in an article, “Making Babies—The New Biology and the ‘Old’ Morality” (Public Interest, Winter 1972), writes: “Let us simply look at what we have done in our conquest of non-human nature. We shall find there no grounds for optimism as we now consider offers to turn our technology loose on human nature. In the absence of standards to guide and restrain the use of this awesome power, we can only dehumanize man as we have despoiled our planet. The knowledge of these standards requires a wisdom we do not possess, and what is worse, we do not even seek.”

Kass, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, microbiologist René Dubos, and many other voices from various scientific fields have reminded us that we are still human, and that perhaps it is in man’s present and potential ability through biological and genetic engineering to “transcend” his human nature that he most vividly threatens himself.

Julius Paul
State University of New York at Fredonia
Fredonia, New York

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