Eugenics in the Hot Seat 28 Years After Roe

“The principal manifestations of eugenics are racism and abortion. Eugenics is the driving force behind euthanasia, artificial insemination, environmental extremism, genetic engineering and coercive population policies. … It is found … in all the social sciences [and] in many works of modern literature, especially science fiction.”

Thus opens John CavanaughO'Keefe's study of how eugenics, the movement devoted to changing the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating, has laid the foundation for today's ethical conundrums in medical, reproductive and social-justice initiatives. If it all sounds a bit alarmist, O'Keefe convincingly demonstrates that racist notions fuel the pseudoscientific eugenics enterprise, which then lobbies, at home and abroad, for “access” to abortion and other technological fixes.

O'Keefe's thesis is wide-ranging, but he makes a persuasive case in a format resembling a high-school textbook. Each chapter addresses one issue (Eugenics Captures Feminism, The Abortion Debate) in solid, if bland, prose with recommendations for further reading and review questions at the end.

The earlier, historical chapters trace the “pedigree” of eugenics, both in theory (Malthus, Darwin, Francis Galton, etc.) and in early American efforts at social engineering such as campaigns to restrict immigration and sterilize the “unfit.” In dealing with such subjects, O'Keefe, known for his controversial activism ever since he opposed the Vietnam War, exercises restraint.

There are a few flashes of his characteristic wit, but little of the sardonic tone one might have expected from such an outspoken pro-life activist. The depth of discussion varies greatly from chapter to chapter, though, and his examination of more current issues is a bit unfocused. This flaw compromises the cohesiveness of the book without destroying its essential arguments.

O'Keefe means to expose “eugenics” as an ideology-driven movement, and things get interesting in his discussion of the turn of the 20th century. He names names of U.S. industrialists and British economic theorists who also belonged to eugenics societies. The author does not limit his study to the English-speaking world; he has a chapter on the origins of the Nazi holocaust in European eugenics. Nevertheless, an Anglo-American axis emerges from this survey, reflecting a history of economic imperialism and a predominantly utilitarian philosophy.

“One of the places where the eugenics movement made strides after the war was in the new global peace-keeping operation, the United Nations,” he writes. “In 1948, when the U.N. was founded, the Americans and British pushed through a provision for population studies as an official function. Some other countries resisted the idea, but the U.S. and Britain succeeded in making a population commission part of the international body.”

The author acknowledges his dependence on the research of his sister, Katharine S. O'Keefe. In a sidebar he quotes her argument that trying to discuss the pre-World-War-II period “without knowing that the architects of appeasement were all eugenicists is like writing post-war history without mentioning that Stalin, Tito and Mao Tse-Tung were all communists.”

The Roots of Racism shows the pervasive, dehumanizing effects of a worldview that denies the intrinsic value of human life and tries to rate it on a sliding scale, depending upon race, IQ or stage of development. The book is a useful dossier on an important and much-misunderstood issue. It might have been titled, more aptly, The Roots of the Culture of Death. In any case, it's well worth a read for anyone who finds him- or herself defending the culture of life 28 years after Roe v. Wade put life issues at the top of the Church's priority list.

Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside,Pennsylvania.

The Roots of Racism and Abortion: An Exploration of Eugenics by John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe Xlibris Corporation, 2000. 268 pages, $25.