National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Quietly, but Steadily, Eugenics Is Making a Comeback

BY John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe

January 19-25, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/19/97 at 2:00 PM


EUGENICS, AN ideology suppressed after World War II, is making a strong comeback if a series of recent national and international bioethics meetings in San Francisco is any indication.

Bioethics, a relatively new academic discipline, drew more than 600 scholars late last year to joint meetings of the American Association of Bioethics (AAB) and the International Association of Bioethics (IAB). President Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission also scheduled a meeting to coincide with the six-day gatherings. Bioethicists from around the world presented more than 400 papers on such topics as physician-assisted suicide, genetic engineering, expanding healthcare to include human-rights advocacy, and abuses in human research.

A major topic was the renewal of eugenics, an effort to improve the human race by controlling reproduction patterns. The presidents of the two sponsoring associations, Professor Daniel Wilder of the IAB and Professor Dan Brock of the AAB, said that they are working together on a book promoting eugenics. Wilder stressed that they had no intention of returning to the horrors of Nazi Germany's master race program. But his co-author used the phrase “life not worth living” repeatedly, and insisted that eugenics must sometimes include coercion, when parents do not take responsibility for preventing the conception and birth of severely disabled children.

The difference between eugenics today and eugenics in Germany, Wilder said, is that the German program was controlled by the government, not by interested individuals. George Annas, a bioethicist from Boston University, summarized the difference neatly during a meeting at the Holocaust Museum: “They wanted a perfect race; we want a perfect baby.”

The renewed interest in eugenics is global. Dr. Hyadukai Sakamoto, of Keio University in Japan, discussed “Artificial Evolution: A New Eugenics.” Sakamoto argued that Western ideas about human rights should not be allowed to interfere with the pursuit of human happiness. He said that people today are adopting an “Asian mentality [in which] the idea of human dignity is relatively weak.” Opposition to genetic engineering is linked to the Western notion of human rights, he added, arguing that “in the Tiananmen Square affair, the European type of fundamental human right was violated in the name of the Chinese people's total welfare.” By contrast, Asian communitarianism “might admit a new sort of communitarianism—even the idea of some new type of eugenics—that has long been rejected in the Western world [that] denounces the violation of human rights.” In Confucian ethics, Sakamoto said, “harmony and social benevolence [are] superior to [individual] human rights.”

Dr. Ren-Zong Qiu, of the Chinese Academy of Social Science in Beijing, was less effusive about eugenics, denying that it figures into his government's population policies. He said that a section in a recent law was mistranslated last year, giving a false impression; it should have been labeled “women's health,” not “eugenics,” since the law is designed to help women have healthy children, he said. The official also repeated the Chinese government's contention that widely reported instances of coercive abortion and sterilization are just isolated abuses at the local level.

In a talk entitled “Playing the Nazi Card,” Professor Jonathan Glover from Oxford University argued that comparing today's drift into eugenics and euthanasia to the grave evils of Nazism is inaccurate. He criticized an unnamed Australian bishop who decried euthanasia “because the Nazis did it.” Glover did not expand on the bishop's statement or refer to any of the extensive arguments put forth by the Church; he seemed to assume the “Nazi card” was the sum total of the Church's objections. The current eugenics and euthanasia movements are different from the German movements in “obvious” ways, he said. The German programs included systematic racism and also a carefully cultivated “emotional hardness,” which made atrocities common, according to Glover. He said neither of these elements are present today.

The president's bioethics commission took a day out from the conference for their meeting. At this session, they invited members of other national commissions to advise them on how their work may be effective, how the members may become visible and build public support. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the meeting was the absence of any reference to religion in the United States. A French commissioner explained how they are careful to solicit the views of their major denominations: “Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Marxists.” The president of Mexico's bioethics commission, Dr. Manuel Velasco-Suarez, spoke out against human embryo research, reflecting the views of the Catholic Church, but he was the only person to do so openly. Several people approached him to express support—but did so in private.

John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe is director of public policy for the American Life League.