Eugenics: Hate, not Autonomy

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas took a stick to the moral sanctum of women’s abortion rights when he wrote a legal opinion in May that tied abortion to eugenics, the ideology and activity aimed at eliminating supposedly unwanted inherited characteristics in human beings.  In return, progressive historians and pundits are calling Thomas’ integrity into question by claiming that eugenics, unlike abortion rights, is all about the evils of state control over private individual decisions. Eugenics, however, is really about hatred of the human condition and the utopian perfection of the species according to elite preferences.  Distorting our society’s picture of eugenics in the 21st century is a dangerous tactic that progressives will soon regret.

Historian Alexandra Minna Stern complained in Newsweek that Thomas’ well-argued and extensively researched document is “a smear tactic to associate abortion with the most heinous abuses of the 20th century.”  She identifies state-sanctioned, forcible sterilization of 60,000 Americans as the heart of what is evil about eugenics, in contrast to the apparently noble pursuit of individual liberty exercised in women’s choices to abort their unborn children.  Stern does not dare to counter Thomas’ reference to the rate of abortions that, as demonstrated in Centers for Disease Control research, is three times as high for black Americans as for white.

In the Washington Post, progressive author Paul Lombardo declared that “I’ve been studying this stuff for 40 years, and I’ve never been able to find a leader of the eugenics movement that came out and said they supported abortion.”  This is fake history compounded by false testimony.  It only takes a few minutes on Google to find examples of historical documents (here and here) that contradict any dissociation of abortion from eugenics.  If Lombardo and his fellow progressive historians do not know that Alan Guttmacher, heir to Margaret Sanger’s leadership of Planned Parenthood, was previously a vice president of the American Eugenics Society (as Thomas explained once again in a First Things rebuttal), or that Population Council and Pioneer Fund founder Frederick Osborn wrote that “birth control and abortion are turning out to be great eugenic advances of our time," then perhaps the professional label of historian should be reserved for more knowledgeable scholars.

The greater scandal is the attempt by Stern and others to paint eugenics as a merely state-led effort securely left in the past.  This minimizes the core point of eugenics, which is not to empower the state, but to use any means necessary for eliminating inherited characteristics that are unwanted.  It ignores the vast cultural impact of “fitter families” contests at early 20th century popular events, the intellectual impact of college eugenics courses for 20,000 students in 1928 alone, and the enthusiastic involvement of physicians in Nazi euthanasia programs as well as American infanticide, dramatized in the wildly popular film The Black Stork.     

The mischaracterization of abortion as purely a matter of autonomy is also a fairly blunt ideological device.  Mothers who abort their unborn children do so with a host of influences on their decisions, not least the repeated, cruel myth that disabled persons and their parents are guaranteed a miserable existence.  Abortion is most certainly one tool for a eugenics agenda.  In one study, 23 to 33 percent of nonpregnant women said they would abort their fetus if he or she tested positive for Down syndrome, yet 89 to 97 percent of women chose abortion when the tests came back positive.  Medical professionals’ attitudes have a dramatic effect; maternal-fetal medical specialists, for example, are much more likely than fetal care pediatric specialists to support parents’ decisions for abortion, and the actual termination rates by their patients are consequently 2½ times higher.

The issue of eugenics in the 21st century should not, however, center on abortion as its sole means.  The technology for genetic engineering of human embryos is developing rapidly, and botched edits of embryos’ DNA have already resulted in live births. Scholars who are often grouped under the label “liberal eugenics” -- including Nicholas Agar, Jonathan Glover, Jeff McMahan, Ronald Green, and Allen Buchanan -- are boldly promoting such genetic engineering procedures not only to reduce the presence of inherited diseases and abnormalities, but to provide the moral warrant that will be used by commercial entities and parents alike to dramatically increase new persons’ physical and mental capabilities.  Julian Savulescu enjoys notoriety and eternal publishing opportunities by rehashing many of the liberal eugenics scholars’ claims that we will have a moral and public obligation, not just the right, to genetically enhance new children.  Peter Singer, from his tenured perch at Princeton University, has been arguing that any human being that is not fully capable of “rational” thought, including born infants and intellectually disabled persons, can and often should be killed for the benefit of parents and society.

Historians should be aware of how their objects of study gain meaning in the present.  Most historians specializing in eugenics, however, say nothing of the “liberal eugenics” resurgence in the 21st century, or of eugenics as a persistent ideology that is not defined by the particular tools it uses.  They say little to nothing about the intimate connections between today’s ideological progressivism and the eugenics ideology, or how the emphasis on individual choice in the new eugenics parallels the insincere transition of progressives from endorsing the fascist organic state to championing the “individual rights” of politically strategic interest groups.  We hear nothing about the eugenics motive of Robert G. Edwards, the father of in vitro fertilization (IVF) which has for 40 years destroyed millions of human embryos in order to select children who meets each couple’s individual preferences.

At its core, eugenics is really all about hatred: hatred of limitations imposed by the natural body and mind, hatred of a God who allows the human condition of suffering and shame, and hatred of any person who has the audacity to live with the unwanted afflictions.  The stomach-burning resentment of frustrated persons can undermine an entire civilization and drive a utopian, secular goal of species perfection.  The opposing views of humanity that distinguish eugenics from human rights are the same as between progressivism and conservatism: one the one hand, a valueless individual who is ideally free of constraints on instrumental goals and gains dignity only through conformity with the determined but accelerated progress of species evolution; on the other hand, an inherently dignified individual who enjoys strong individual rights precisely because she or he lives with a God-given identity and human challenge.

Eugenics historians and abortion advocates who think that today’s “liberal eugenics” is a benevolent force of individual morality should take a close look at proposals by Buchanan and others for a new international authority called the Global Institute for Justice in Innovation, which could engage in international pressure toward certain genetic enhancement preferences.  When the time comes for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on such a travesty, I hope that it is Clarence Thomas who once again speaks for all of us.

Christopher M. Reilly advocates for a permanent ban on genetic engineering of human embryos at