Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population. It’s caused a lot of debate and controversy since it was first coined in 1937 by Frederick Osborn (who framed it as a philosophy with implications for social order) – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Osborn advocated for higher rates of sexual reproduction among people with desired traits (positive eugenics), or reduced rates of sexual reproduction and sterilisation of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics).
While the principles of eugenics have been practiced as far back in history as ancient Greece, the modern history of eugenics began in the early 20th century when a popular eugenics movement emerged in the United Kingdom and spread to many countries, including the United States, Canada and most European countries. A lot of countries adopted eugenic policies to improve the genetic stock of their populations. Programmes often included both “positive” measures, such as encouraging individuals deemed particularly “fit” to reproduce, and “negative” measures, such as marriage prohibitions and forced sterilisation of people deemed unfit for reproduction.
People who were deemed unfit to reproduce included people with mental or physical disabilities, people who scored in the low ranges of different IQ tests, criminals and deviants, and members of minority groups. The eugenics movement became negatively associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust when many of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials attempted to justify their human rights abuses by claiming there was little difference between the Nazi eugenics programs and the U.S. eugenics programs. In the decades following World War II, with the institution of human rights, many countries gradually abandoned eugenics policies, although some Western countries, among them the United States, continued to carry out forced sterilisations.
A major criticism of eugenics policies is that, regardless of whether “negative” or “positive” policies are used, they are vulnerable to abuse, because the criteria of selection are determined by whichever group is in political power. Furthermore, negative eugenics in particular is considered by many to be a violation of basic human rights, which include the right to reproduction. Another criticism is that eugenic policies eventually lead to a loss of genetic diversity, resulting in inbreeding depression instead due to a low genetic variation.
The concept of positive eugenics to produce better human beings has existed at least since Plato suggested selective mating to produce a guardian class. The idea of negative eugenics to decrease the birth of inferior human beings has existed at least since William Goodell (1829-1894) advocated the castration and spaying of the insane.
Three International Eugenics Conferences presented a global venue for eugenists with meetings in 1912 in London, and in 1921 and 1932 in New York City. Eugenics was internationally organised through the International Federation of Eugenics Organisations. Politically, the movement advocated measures such as sterilisation laws. In its moral dimension, eugenics rejected the doctrine that all human beings are born equal, and redefined moral worth purely in terms of genetic fitness. Its racist elements included pursuit of a pure “Nordic race” or “Aryan” genetic pool and the eventual elimination of “less fit” races.
The scientific reputation of eugenics started to decline in the 1930s when Ernst Rüdin used the field as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf in 1925 and emulated eugenic legislation for the sterilization of “defectives” that had been pioneered in the United States once he took power. Some common early 20th century eugenics methods involved identifying and classifying individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, and racial groups (such as the Roma and Jews in Nazi Germany) as “degenerate” or “unfit”, leading to their segregation or institutionalisation, sterilisation, euthanasia, and even their mass murder.
Developments in genetic and reproductive technologies at the end of the 20th century are raising numerous questions regarding the ethical status of eugenics, creating a resurgence of interest in the subject. In a 2006 newspaper article, Richard Dawkins said that discussion regarding eugenics was inhibited by the shadow of Nazi misuse, to the extent that some scientists would not admit that breeding humans for certain abilities is at all possible. He believes that it is not physically different from breeding domestic animals for traits such as speed or herding skill. Dawkins felt that enough time had elapsed to at least ask just what the ethical differences were between breeding for ability versus training athletes or forcing children to take music lessons, though he could think of persuasive reasons to draw the distinction.
In October 2015, the United Nations’ International Bioethics Committee wrote that the ethical problems of human genetic engineering should not be confused with the ethical problems of the 20th century eugenics movements.
Societal and political consequences of eugenics call for a place in the discussion on the ethics behind the eugenics movement. Many of the ethical concerns regarding eugenics arise from its controversial past, prompting a discussion on what place, if any, it should have in the future. Advances in science have changed eugenics. In the past, eugenics had more to do with sterilisation and enforced reproduction laws. Now, in the age of a progressively mapped genome, embryos can be tested for susceptibility to disease, gender, and genetic defects, and alternative methods of reproduction such as in vitro fertilization are becoming more common.
There are ethical concerns which lack adequate attention, and which must be addressed before eugenic policies can be properly implemented in the future. Sterilised individuals, for example, could volunteer for the procedure, albeit under incentive or duress, or at least voice their opinion. The unborn fetus on which these new eugenic procedures are performed cannot speak out, as the fetus lacks the voice to consent or to express his or her opinion. Philosophers disagree about the proper framework for reasoning about such actions, which change the very identity and existence of future persons.
A common criticism of eugenics is that “it inevitably leads to measures that are unethical”. Some fear future “eugenics wars” as the worst-case scenario: the return of coercive state-sponsored genetic discrimination and human rights violations such as compulsory sterilisation of persons with genetic defects, the killing of the institutionalised and, specifically, segregation and genocide of races perceived as inferior.
I don’t believe that eugenics will inevitably lead to what is suggested in the above paragraph. I believe that there are a lot of ethical concerns that still need to be dealt with, and grey areas – and out-and-out bad areas – need to be protected in strong, global laws, but that doesn’t mean that eugenics, properly debated and examined, shouldn’t have a place in our society.
Strip away the racist and the inhuman elements, and you have a system of scientific thought and planning that allows for a healthy improvement in the imperfect human genome. We’re not perfect as a species and we never will be, but we’re sentient and aware of our shortcomings. In liberal societies, where we understand the nature of grey areas and actually care about ethical conduct, we have an obligation to encourage as wide an adoption of eugenic enhancement technologies as possible in order to maximise public health and minimise the inequalities that result from both natural genetic endowments and unequal access to genetic enhancements. The caveat I would state is that such an obligation shouldn’t infringe on individuals’ reproductive rights or exert undue pressures on prospective parents to use these technologies.
What I’m not saying is that we delete the genes for everything that is different about us; our race, eye colour, sexual orientation, and so on is entirely natural. Those are things that make us us; where bigotry and discrimination exist, then it’s down to us to perform a type of social eugenics, removing the cancerous hatred out of our communities and refusing to tolerate such small-minded hatred. That’s absolutely just.
What I am saying is that, surely, we have a moral duty to remove actual genetic defects where they occur. Surely we can come together on the fact that there are serious health concerns in our society that deserve to be deleted from our gene pool? What defects is a serious discussions for experts – yes, experts, which I know is a dirty word in this post-truth age we live in – but it needs to be based on medical science and bioethics, not emotion and personalisation. I respect evidence and thoughtful enquiry of both science and ethics, and I want to live in a society that is morally advanced and compassionate, and also healthy and free of disease – and the two are absolutely compatible.
I am not cruel, and neither are you, dear reader. We must remove deep-seated, powerful emotions that cause us fear and anxiety at a word – eugenics – which still has negative connotations from a dark place in our collective history that will remain a stain on our species. However, what will also remain a stain on our species’ collective character is if we refuse we consider an ethic and scientifically-literate return to an effective eugenics policy that genuinely helps us improve as a species. The ethic debates we have along the way will help us improve our outlook as well.