Eugenics, Past and Future

Ross Douthat, New York Times, June 9, 2012

The current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine includes a portrait of Irving Fisher, a Yale economics professor in the 1920s and ‘30s and a giant of his field. The author, Richard Conniff, takes note of Fisher’s prodigious professional accomplishments and his private decency in order to foreground the real subject of his article: the economist’s role as one of his era’s highest-wattage proponents of eugenics.

The American elite’s pre-World War II commitment to breeding out the “unfit”—defined variously as racial minorities, low-I.Q. whites, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the criminally inclined—is a story that defies easy stereotypes about progress and enlightenment. {snip}

But these same eugenicists were often political and social liberals—advocates of social reform, partisans of science, critics of stasis and reaction. “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers,” Conniff writes of Fisher and his peers, “but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.” {snip}

This progressive fascination with eugenics largely ended with World War II and the horrors wrought by National Socialism. {snip}

The eugenicists had very general ideas about genetics and heredity, very crude ideas about intelligence, and deeply poisonous ideas about racial hierarchies. They 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 access, until recently, has required invasive procedures like amniocentesis. But last week brought a remarkable breakthrough: a team of scientists mapped nearly an entire fetal genome using blood from the mother and saliva from the father.

The procedure costs tens of thousands of dollars today, but the price will surely fall. And it promises access to a wealth of information about the fetus’s biology and future prospects—information that carries obvious blessings, but also obvious temptations.


{snip} In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion. It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale.

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? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.



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