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Denying that we are “them”: Liberal Eugenics, Prenatal Screening, and the Quest for Complete Control

by | Aug 15, 2017

By Dave Andrusko

eugeniccertificateEditor’s note. My family and I will be on vacation through August 25. I will occasionally add new items but for the most part we will repost “the best of the best” — the stories our readers have told us they especially liked over the last ten months.

If you’ve been around the block as often as I have, you are rarely surprised. But you do tend to remember the first “aha” moment when a truth you would never have anticipated comes roaring in.

In this instance I am referring to eugenics—particularly the eugenics from the turn of the 20th Century. The surprise? That all the “best” people thought we needed to spruce up the gene pool in blatantly discriminatory manner, including forced sterilization.

That truism came barreling through when I re-read a column by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in which Douthat reminded us of a truth that all of us would probably like to evade: that our belief in our own fundamental goodness can blind us to the evil that we are doing “for the best of reasons.”

Douthat brilliantly tied together a profile written by Richard Conniff that appears in the Yale Alumni Magazine of Irving Fisher, a famous Yale economics professor of the 1920s and 1930s, and a non-invasive prenatal screening test that (to quote Dr. Peter Saunders) “makes eliminating all people with genetic disease an achievable reality.”

Douthat leaves it up the reader to answer his question:

“Is this sort of ‘liberal eugenics,’ in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women?”

“Liberal eugenics”? Of all the mythunderstandings that surround the eugenics movement in the United States, the most common is that it was somehow “those people”—reactionary knuckle-draggers– who were busy attempting to “purge” the gene pool. In fact, Fisher (a man of “prodigious professional accomplishments” and “private decency) was representative of the “self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement,” Douthat writes.

Douthat quotes Conniff who says of Fisher and his peers, “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.”

But while possessed of “very general ideas about genetics and heredity, very crude ideas about intelligence, and deeply poisonous ideas about racial hierarchies,” Douthat writes, these early 20th century eugenicists “did not have, as we do, access to the genetic blueprints of individuals — including, most important, human beings still developing in utero, whose development can be legally interrupted by the intervention of an abortionist.”


That’s where the then-new non-invasive test comes in, which we have written about separately. The research, published in the journal “Science Translational Medicine,” drew on a relatively new discovery that there is DNA from the baby that circulates in the mother’s blood. The team pieced together the entire genetic profile of an unborn baby only 18.5 weeks after conception by taking plasma from the mother and a swab of saliva from the father.

Douthat suggests we can learn from what happens to unborn babies diagnosed to have Down syndrome. Some 70%-90% are aborted. “It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale,” he writes.

Douthat ends on a frightening note, all the more so because he keenly understands our capacity to rationalize what we are doing by denying that we “are them”:

From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.

But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.

First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.

Categories: Eugenics