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John P. SlatteryMay 16, 2024
A marker in Indianapolis describes the history of a 1907 Indiana eugenics lawA marker in Indianapolis describes the history of a 1907 Indiana eugenics law (Radharc Images/Alamy).

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Eugenics was everywhere a century ago. Dozens of countries and a similar number of U.S. states passed eugenics laws allowing forced sterilizations. In 1924, Virginia passed a sweeping eugenics law on the same day that its Racial Integrity Act became law, banning interracial marriage of any kind. This eugenics law became famous as it worked its way through the court system, reaching the Supreme Court in 1927 in Buck v. Bell. There, in a landmark ruling that would stand until the ’60s, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. would pen the terrible closing lines of the majority opinion: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

After this judgment, the defendant, Carrie Buck, was forcibly sterilized in 1927, the first of thousands of women sterilized in Virginia alone. The Virginia law would become a model for the eugenic system in Nazi Germany, where hundreds of thousands would be sterilized before the death camps became common practice. Forced sterilizations in the United States continued until at least 1973, long after the concentration camps were destroyed. Today, 31 U.S. states have laws allowing forced sterilization for disabled individuals and incarcerated individuals. The most recent laws were passed in 2019.

Sometimes a century seems like a long time. Sometimes it does not.

A Cultural Touchstone

Eugenics has become a cultural touchstone through these evils, standing among an infamous group of related ideas that have proved themselves terrible for humanity. But eugenicsheld rather an opposite meaning for quite some time, especially among the highest echelons of polite society. From its introduction in the 1880s until its cultural demise in the 1950s, eugenicsrepresented (sometimes simultaneously) the noblest intentions of scientists, the worst intentions of racists and the mediocre intentions of politicians.

At different times and for different people, eugenicshad a range of meanings, including forced sterilization and genocide but also marrying well, practicing healthy eating habits and raising intelligent children to fulfill God’s vision for humanity. Eugenics was a global movement of bio-politics; a scientific movement centered on heredity, statistics and a particular definition of human progress; a political movement for racial and intellectual “purity”; and a popular movement that fed on the worst biases of humanity.

Over the last century, the meaning of the word eugenics has decidedly shifted. This is due in part to civil rights movements in the United States and international declarations of human equality, scientific developments like in-vitro fertilization and gene editing, and modern statistical methods of genetical analysis. Rather than serve as a label for a political and scientific vision of achieving a “perfect” human species, eugenics has become a negative term associated only with evil scientists and Nazi medical experiments. Like Nazis, it is something in the past; as long as people are given a personal choice in their fertility and genetics, modern society can perhaps be free of this terrible legacy.

At least this is the argument in Adam Rutherford’s popular book Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics (2022), in which the author, a geneticist, argues that eugenics was about control, and that despite all the possibilities of genetic manipulation, the modern insistence on personal and parental choice frees us from allegations of that troubling term. It is a convincing book, condemning the many biases of the eugenics era on the way to condemning the existence of racial and other eugenic-related biases that persist in modern science today. As he tries to disambiguate the scientific progress of genetics from the bad intentions of eugenic actors in the past and present, Rutherford eventually asks a pivotal question: Given all we know today, is the ideal of eugenics—that genetically perfect human—even possible?

Rutherford answers that the perfect human is impossible both now and, most likely, far, far into the future. This is unquestionably good news, but his question left me with a bad aftertaste. Why did he ask this question at all? What purpose did it serve?

Don’t Ask

Of the many things that the history of eugenics should teach modern society, two stand out in this discussion. First, not all questions are good questions. Second, statistics can be warped to tell you pretty much anything you want.

“Are men more intelligent than women?” is not a question children should be asking, much less professional scientists. Given the biased and culturally determined nature of intelligence, and all the violence attached to this question over millennia, to do research on this question is dangerous and deeply unethical. But despite their danger, questions of intelligence seem tame compared with an even more reprehensible set of questions, like “Are [insert human subgroup] really human?” or “Should [insert human subgroup] be allowed to exist in the world?” These questions reek of violence, and carry with them a legacy of murder. Some questions have earned their place in the landfills of science and society. Questions that toy with genocide, like those that dance around racial or gender inequality, should not be tolerated.

Despite the best of intentions, Rutherford’s question belongs in a similar category. It is neither helpful nor ethical to ask if eugenics could actually work. Nor does it matter that Rutherford asks this question only to dismantle the idea. It doesn’t matter that modern genetics can no more bring about human perfection than it could 100 years ago, given issues of side effects, experimentation problems and the impossible challenge of determining intelligence.

If the leading voices in the field continue to ask these questions, then no matter the answer, everyone will continue to think it is acceptable to wonder if a worldwide eugenic program could really be successful. And if people continue to wonder, they will continue to follow those lines of thought to terrible, terrible places.

WhatIs Not Eugenics?

The modern discussion of the lingering effects of the eugenics movement suffers because of the volatile nature of the word eugenics itself. Like saying someone is a racist or a Nazi, an accusation of eugenics is typically one that ends conversations, and if it doesn’t, it can be easily batted off by pointing out the many differences between modern genetic experimentation and the historical eugenics movement.

Let me be clear: There are plenty of racist and ableist people, research programs and government programs, just as there are plenty of intolerable questions currently labeled as acceptable roads of inquiry. But these people and programs do not necessarily comprise a modern equivalent of the 19th-century eugenics movement.

Abortion advocates and effective altruists (who aim to use statistical methods to determine the most effective charity work) are not eugenicists, and neither are I.V.F. users or gene-editing companies. Even government-controlled heredity programs like those in China or forced sterilization laws in the United States are only distant legacies of the eugenics movement at its height. All of these ideas are children of eugenics, but none of them are eugenics. Still, you don’t need to be a historian of eugenics to see the sterilization of individuals against their will as a core violation of bodily autonomy, no matter the disability or incarceration of that person.

As for the popular but questionable philosophy known as effective altruism, it includes a new, and very influential, branch known as “longtermism.” Followers of longtermism want to see a thriving future of a limitless human species in 100,000 or 100 billion years. In order to achieve such thriving, they value investments in space travel, multi-planet colonization, human-longevity science and—at times—population control through public campaigns as well as easy access to birth control and abortion. These goals sometimes supersede more straightforward campaigns such as vaccination efforts, disease mitigation and fighting global hunger, skipping the present for the future.

These ideas have ties to eugenics, especially in the genetics of human longevity and in population control, but the ethical problems of longtermists go well beyond their connection to eugenics. Longtermists hold morally problematic notions of capitalistic savior complexes, embrace a priority of Western ideals, and often espouse racist undertones of controlling non-white populations. Longtermists also hold a devotion to unproven statistical methods similar to those of the originators of eugenics—by assuming, for example, that statistics can tell you which billion-dollar investments will save humanity in 10,000 years. You don’t need to be opposed to eugenics to see the oppressive problems of such arguments; you just need to value human equality.

Modern abortion advocates are also not eugenicists, and modern abortion practices are not eugenics. It is true that early abortion practices, including those initiated through Planned Parenthood, were directly in support of political eugenic enforcement. Yet this fact has since been acknowledged even by Planned Parenthood itself, which has worked to distance itself from its founder, the noted eugenicist Margaret Sanger.

Furthermore, the two aspects of abortion typically labeled as eugenic are much better understood through more straightforward moral arguments. First, the abortion of unborn children with genetic malformations, such as Down syndrome, is not eugenics, as it is neither forced nor part of an overall cultural vision of a biologically perfect society. Instead, such abortions are best understood as deliberate blindness to the humanity of the unborn child with Down syndrome, a blindness that is caused by misperceptions of happiness levels of people with disabilities, the presence of widespread ableism in society, and the lack of a strong social safety net for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities. Ableism clearly fueled eugenics, but ableism existed long before the eugenics movement, and it will persist long after.

Second, in a similar vein, people selecting embryos for gender and specific genetic characteristics, while ableist and dangerous and rising in popularity, is not eugenics. It is highly unlikely that humanity will ever narrow down the genetic conditions to produce specific heights or eye color, not to mention vastly more complex things like intelligence, artistic ability or beauty—a point that Rutherford argues. Any attempt to convince individuals and parents of the opposite is a lie, veiled by corporations as potentially beneficial for health to increase market share based upon fear of sickness and death.

This is the dark side of 23andMe and similar corporations whose proven ability to connect long-lost family members and give people a rough sense of genetic heritage has enabled them to become a popular, trusted medium for genetic information, shielding the core of their true identity: a corporate giant that traffics in human biological data, much as Meta traffics in human social data. This deception connects directly back to the early days of eugenics, when Francis Galton and others used poor statistical correlations to convince people that eugenics was a viable scientific project. But the similarity with eugenics withers away quickly.

Remember the Past

Modern society would look very different were it not for the impact of eugenics, and the same could be said about racism, slavery, misogyny, warfare and colonialism. And like these other evils, traces of eugenics can be found everywhere. We live in a world formed deeply by eugenics practices and policies and questions, a world where biological politics are commonplace and biological power is perhaps the greatest power of all.

Our shared history of eugenics lingers throughout society: broken, disassembled and regurgitated as similar but different unethical movements and norms, inside and outside of science. We would do well to remember the past, to see its lingering effects and to hold dear the shreds of humanity that bring us together, instead of falling victim to any number of visions of future perfection, be they gender-based, racial, biological or technological. These visions will engender countless acts of pain and destruction on their supposed path to greatness, as have all visions of physical perfection before them.

And though I would like to end with this clarion call to oppose eugenics, I fear the rot is more systemic than interpersonal, better served with long-term dedication to those with disabilities and those cast aside and underfunded in foster care, in hospitals, in group homes, in prisons. We must shift not only our entire selves, but our workplaces, our governments and our communities to unravel the systems that continue to devour the vulnerable, and to build systems that protect and serve them.

Much can change in a century, but much can also stay the same.

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