Kevin P. Quinn

The confluence of advances in human genetics and reproductive science has resulted in the ability to design babies. “Designing babies” is an imprecise term used by journalists and commentators—not by scientists—to describe several different reproductive technologies that have one thing in common: they give parents more control over what their offspring will be like.

Many inherited diseases, for example, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, can be detected very early using a technique called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PDG). This procedure, first used in 1990, enables doctors to perform genetic tests on embryos produced by in vitro fertilization. Embryos found to be free of a disease-causing gene mutation can then be selectively implanted into a woman’s womb to initiate a pregnancy. PDG can also be used to select the sex or other genetic characteristics of embryos. As our knowledge of the human genome increases and our ability to modify it improves, other techniques may also become possible, including picking an embryo for its specific traits and manipulating human genes for therapeutic or cosmetic reasons.

What are the ethical, social and scientific implications of this potent new technology? In War Against the Weak, the investigative journalist Edwin Black lays bare the ugly story of America’s eugenics movement and cautions that with the arrival of a “precocious” new genetics age, a “new war against the weak” is imaginable. Black’s warning—to separate fact from fantasy and blessings from menaces of 21st-century genetic engineering—is well worth heeding.

Black argues that the eugenics movement of the early 20th century began in the United States in laboratories on Long Island, N.Y., and was “supported by the best universities in America, endorsed by the brightest thinkers, financed by the richest capitalists,” but ended in Nazi Germany’s death camps. Launched by a small group of enterprising academics and professionals, this pseudoscientific campaign had one purpose: to create a “superior Nordic race.” Eugenic research into heredity, as Black stresses repeatedly, combined “equal portions of gossip, race prejudice, sloppy methods and leaps of logic, all caulked together by elements of actual genetic knowledge to create the glitter of a genuine science.” As their methods, American eugenicists promoted state-mandated sterilizations, human breeding programs, marriage prohibition, racist immigration policies and even “eugenic” euthanasia. Their hope was that eventually—perhaps within several generations—only the white Nordics would remain in the United States, and eugenic doctrines and policies could then be exported globally.

Black is telling a well-known story, yet he adds to it substantial new detail (culled from some 50,000 collected documents) in disclosing “many explosive revelations and embarrassing episodes about some of our society’s most honored individuals and institutions.” That the eugenics movement allied shameless racism with mighty American power, position and wealth, that corporate philanthropists (like Harriman, Carnegie and Rockefeller) financed the movement, and that the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned eugenic sterilization in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, with the misanthropic Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. infamously writing for an 8-to-1 majority that “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” is familiar ground. But Black produces damning new evidence about “corporate philanthropy gone wild,” involuntary euthanasia of newborns who were deformed or had birth defects and our national nightmare of coerced sterilizations. For three or four decades after Nuremberg declared forced sterilizations crimes against humanity, the United States continued to sterilize “unfit” Americans, judged to be such by self-chosen elites because of their eugenic or racial character.

In the introduction, Black reminds us about recent public apologies from several governors to the victims of their states’ official eugenics programs. An estimated 70,000 Americans were victims of eugenics, the “weak” of the book’s title. These include poor urban dwellers and rural “white trash”; European immigrants such as brown-haired Irish and southeastern Italians; African Americans and Mexicans; the mentally ill, epileptics and alcoholics; and anyone else judged “feebleminded.” To no one’s surprise, “feeblemindedness” was to a eugenicist what pornography was to one Supreme Court justice. (When the court was called upon to distinguish pornography from art, Justice Potter Stewart famously opined that “I shall not today attempt further to define [hard-core pornography].... But I know it when I see it.”)

For Black, “in eugenics, the United States led and Germany followed.” True enough, American eugenicists collaborated with their German counterparts, and German eugenicists praised American policies and research. Even Hitler, in Mein Kampf, heralded America’s sterilization and immigration restriction laws. These American connections were a revelation to this reviewer. Black’s relentless focus on the Nazi connection, however, does not convince me that the American example inspired Hitler to set in action the Holocaust. Nor does Black prove that leading American eugenicists continued to support Nazi concentration camps and virulent biological anti-Semitism until the United States entered the war.

That said, the description of the Third Reich’s eugenic horrors in Buchenwald and Auschwitz is chilling reading. Predictably, the sadistic crimes of Josef Mengele, the camp doctor at Auschwitz, are described in great detail to highlight “the last fanatic stand of the eugenic crusade to create a super race, a superior race—and finally a master race.” But Black is at his best in presenting the strange and forgotten case of Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen. He was a Polish Jew, Harvard-credentialed psychiatrist and naturalized American citizen, who became the chief eugenicist of New Jersey under then-Governor Woodrow Wilson, and ended up as a physician prisoner and S.S. collaborator in ghastly experimental medical activity at Buchenwald. The Nuremberg trial judges, without evidence of specific murders, sentenced Katzen-Ellenbogen to life imprisonment.

Black, whose mother “still remembers when American principles of eugenics came to Nazi-occupied Poland,” has given us an astonishingly gripping narrative of the evils of eugenics. Especially in our postmodern world, this cautionary tale of distinct power elites describing people as leading a “life unworthy of life” is an important read.

Kevin P. Quinn, S.J., is professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.