How Modern Eugenics Discounts Human Dignity

The Sum of Millions of Individual Choices: Jan. 29 issue column.

(photo: Shutterstock illustration by Melissa Hartog)

In this modern age, many people are no longer afraid of eugenics.

It is not that they are ignorant of the past. They know all about the movement of the early 20th century that tried to create a better human race by preventing the birth of those deemed “unfit.”

Eugenics literally means “good birth,” and it seeks to “improve” the human gene pool.

The American eugenics movement resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans in 33 states who were considered unfit to reproduce. And eugenics did not stop there.

Adolf Hitler was a huge fan of eugenics and brought it to its natural conclusion: the Holocaust of World War II, where millions of the “genetically unfit” were exterminated in an effort to create a “master race.” Those considered unfit were not just Jews, but also the criminal, weak, feeble-minded, insane and disabled (not to mention priests and nuns and those who helped try to hide the Jewish people).

Modern eugenicists do not fear the horrors of the past. They support aborting fetuses with disease or disability, what is sometimes called eugenic abortion. Or they advocate the screening of in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryos for disease and “throwing out” the “defective” ones.

Modern eugenicists argue that what went wrong in the 20th century was government enforcement; it was the fact that the authorities forced their will on the people that made eugenics go wrong. Modern eugenicists believe improving the gene pool by making sure the genetically unfit are not born is not a dangerous prospect for the 21st century.

The eugenics of today is “benign” because it will be accomplished not by government coercion, but by individual choice — namely the choices of parents to have the best children possible.

Julian Savulescu, chair of the Oxford Center for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, argues that people should choose the best children by looking at their genetics before they are born.

In his 2002 paper “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,” he wrote, “Couples should select embryos or fetuses which are most likely to have the best life, based on available genetic information, including information about non-disease genes.”

So Savulescu argues for the selection of children not just based on health, but also on traits like intelligence and gender. He insists that this is not eugenics, which, remember, means “good birth.” Instead, Savulescu calls this attempt to have the best children a “private enterprise” based solely on parental choice.

This great experiment with individual parental choice based on genetic information is already under way and has had some devastating results. According to Mara Hvistendahl’s groundbreaking book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, 163 million girls in Asia are “missing.” They were likely aborted simply because they lacked a Y chromosome.

It is well known that Asians have a preference for sons, but it was not until the West’s ideas of reproductive choice and population control came to the East, along with cheap ultrasound technology, that girls started going “missing” in the millions. This preference for sons found refuge in a worldwide culture that supported a woman’s individual decision about whether or not she wanted to be pregnant. “Reproductive rights” now protect the personal decision to not give birth to a girl.

This dearth of girls is not a small problem. One hundred sixty-three million girls is the entire population of females in the United States.

Speaking strictly, by the numbers, this gendercide has easily outpaced the destruction of human life by any fascist or communist regime.

This devastation was not the result of a great government program to eliminate girls. In fact, governments in China and India have tried to curb sex selection by making it against the law. This epidemic of missing females is instead the result of millions of individual choices.

The choice to have what parents believed was the “best” child for them: a son. And the sum of these individual choices has magnified the prejudice against girls, making the lives of women who survive the womb worse, not better.

With millions of unmarried men unable to find brides, sexually transmitted diseases and crime are on the rise. Hvistendahl reports, “Between 1992 and 2004, China’s crime rate nearly doubled. In India, from 2003 to 2007, rape cases surged over 30% and abductions by over 50%, prompting the government to unveil female-only trains.”

In their scarcity, Asian women have also become commodities to be bought and sold. Parents all over the continent are guarding their girls against kidnappers who would sell them to rich families who want to guarantee a future bride for their sons.

Women are routinely kidnapped and dragged across boundary lines to be forced into the sex industry.

Poor families who could not afford sex-selective procedures are selling their daughters to rich families who could. Individual choices in favor of males are ensuring that women are born only to poor families who cannot afford sex selection.

This, then, increases the chances that those women will be treated as commodities.

In an interview with TrustLaw, gender expert Tanushree Soni from Plan International reports that sex-selective abortion is having devastating consequences for women.

Soni told TrustLaw, “An imbalance of sexes fuels human trafficking and sexual exploitation. It endangers economic development and increases social instability as a growing population of men search for partners.” Worse, she said, “When you see very highly skewed ratios of sex, it’s very likely you’ll get a high prevalence of violence against women and girls.”

In the West, we do not have a prejudice against girls. We have a prejudice against the sick, the disabled and the genetically “defective.”

Despite a study that shows 99% of adults with Down syndrome report being happy, a statistic that would likely never be duplicated in the “normal” adult population, 90% of children with Down syndrome are aborted.

Parents are told that they should abort. Medical professionals insist it is the best thing for their child. I have read countless accounts of parents who were told that killing their child in the womb is the “compassionate, unselfish thing” to do. It is a sad reality that many people, not just in the West, but all over the world, believe that children are better off dead than sick or disabled.

And now we have the technology to screen embryos for all kind of genetic traits while they are still in the lab. The process that modern eugenicists urge parents to use to have the “best” children is called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD).

In PGD, a single cell is extracted from an IVF embryo and then tested to see which embryos make the genetic cut. The embryos that “fail” this test are discarded or donated to research. The ones that “pass” have a chance to be transferred into a womb.

Many medical professionals talk about eugenic abortion and PGD as if these procedures cure or eliminate disease.

However, they do nothing of the sort. They are just attempts at making sure no one with genetic disease is born. Parents still create offspring with genetic abnormalities; these children are just thrown in the trash or aborted in favor of those considered “disease-free.”

Eugenic abortion and PGD quite literally throw the baby out with the dirty genetic bath water.

And what of the West’s cumulation of individual choices?

In the East, these choices mean a deepening prejudice and marginalization of women.

In the West, it has meant a deepening prejudice and marginalization of anyone deemed “defective.”

Women who give birth to a child with Down syndrome have been called “genetic outlaws.” In the Journal of Legal Medicine, one doctor/lawyer suggested prosecution for a mother who knowingly gives birth to a child with Tay-Sachs disease (Lori B. Andrews, “The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology,” p. 161).

The book A Special Mother Is Born is an excellent collection of stories of parents of children who have special needs. It is also a catalogue of mistreatment of these parents and children by medical professionals, the very people who should be there to care for them.

These individual choices to have the “best” children have created a society where those who are not perfect are not only marginalized, but have to somehow justify their existence.

It is this phenomenon that led Dr. Jeffrey Nisker, a former PGD provider, to quit the practice.

In a recent article about PGD in The Globe and Mail, Nisker recounts how he realized where PGD would lead: a place where millions of individual choices make a hostile environment for those with disease or disability. Nisker said, “This is scary to me because I’m one who doesn’t believe in social engineering. If we strive for perfection, we are going to blame people with disabilities. We’re not going to accommodate them or support them with tax dollars.”

Modern eugenicists wrongly believe we can limit the evils of eugenics simply by allowing personal choice to be the guide.

The gendercide in Asia, and its subsequent aftermath for women, is proof that the sum of individual choices can be more disastrous than any government coercion. The only way to never return to the devastation of the eugenics movement is to reject it entirely. All life is precious and deserves dignity, respect and protection, not just those lives considered the best. All men, women and children have dignity, regardless of their genes or their limitations. The moral way to deal with disease and disability is to treat them. It is not to make sure people with disease and disability are never born.

As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, the only way to not repeat the horrors of eugenics is to reaffirm our inherent dignity. A dignity not found in our genetics.

In a 2005 speech at the Vatican, the Holy Father stated, “The people of our time, sensitized by the terrible vicissitudes that have covered the 20th century and the very beginning of this one in mourning, are able to understand that man’s dignity is not identified with his DNA genes and that it does not diminish with the eventual presence of physical differences or genetic defects.”

Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology.

She writes about bioethics on her blog Mary Meets Dolly