We observed a dubious centennial this year. In 1907, Indiana became the first state in America to pass a eugenics law.
Eugenics can be defined as the study of the hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled, selective breeding. Because of what we now know about genetics, eugenics turns out to be a pseudo-science loaded with philosophical and ethical baggage.
Sir Francis Galton was responsible for first describing eugenics (in 1865) and then coining the term (in 1883). Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, suggested the study of eugenics to pursue a better human race by applying the basic principles of agricultural breeding to humans. In particular, eugenicists have often been concerned about inferior people (e.g., the poor, with darker skin) having more children than superior people (e.g., middle-upper income classes, with lighter skin).
Galton's ideas picked up steam as scientists and physicians lent their credibility and support to his notions. One particularly amazing example: In a medical journal in 1902, Dr. Harry Sharp described the illegal vasectomies he gave inmates in a Jeffersonville, Ind., reformatory. Sharp's efforts were well-received and increasingly supported by doctors, agricultural breeders, sociologists and public health officials.
One of the nation's most prominent eugenicists was David Starr Jordan, a past president of Indiana University. Given the intellectual coherence of eugenics with the ideas of that time, powerful proponents like Jordan and Sharp's extensive lobbying, the Indiana Legislature passed its eugenics law on March 9, 1907. It promised to prevent the “procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” The law was repealed in 1921 but reinstated in 1928 — after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia's similar law in 1927 (Buck v. Bell).
In that case, Carrie Buck was a 17-year old girl who was forcibly sterilized at the “Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded” in Lynchburg because she had been pregnant and her mother had been mentally ill. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision and penned this now-stunning quote: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Eventually, 30 states adopted sterilization laws. In all, more than 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in the United States. Beyond the United States, forced sterilization was practiced in many developed countries during the 20th century. But the most staggering legacy of such legislation is that it served as a model for the law adopted by the Nazi government in 1933. How does eugenics play out today?
As a matter of state policy, China's “one-child policy” has led to infanticide, an estimated 20 million abortions per year and a 6:5 boy-girl ratio. As a matter of personal, religious and cultural preferences, gender-biased abortion is practiced in India, resulting in 8 percent more boys than girls. Abortion also is practiced on babies in utero when they have less desirable characteristics — e.g., Down syndrome. And beyond abortion, “medical eugenics” in utero is increasingly prevalent (the production of “designer” babies). In March, Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, caused an uproar with a provocative question: If a predisposition toward homosexuality is eventually determined to have a genetic component, should parents seek to have that gene altered? Mohler would advocate genetic manipulation under certain conditions, but he would not advocate abortion. For those who are not so opposed to abortion, Mohler continues by asking how often parents would seek to have such a gene altered. “How many parents — even among those who consider themselves most liberal — would choose a gay child?”
A biological cause for homosexual orientation would allow for additional normalization of homosexuality because it would be seen as more “natural.” But ironically, such a biological link combined with modern technology and a eugenic reflex could lead to efforts to eliminate the trait or change a baby's sexual orientation through treatment.
More broadly, the implications of a eugenics reflex include a broad array of issues within sexual and reproductive ethics (e.g., birth control), ethics within scientific research (e.g., cloning, embryonic stem-cell research) and, most broadly, in speaking to a “culture” of death or life (e.g., various forms of euthanasia). In each case, the same tension is at work: When is modern technology a useful way to improve life in an ethical manner? And when is it overly influenced by a eugenics reflex — with its desire to manipulate life in a god-like manner, through an overarching faith in the power of science.