Eugenics, Today

Eugenics, Today June 11, 2012

Ross Douthat:

THE current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine includes a portrait of Irving Fisher, a Yale economics professor in the 1920s and ’30s and a giant of his field. The author, Richard Conniff, takes note of Fisher’s prodigious professional accomplishments and his private decency in order to foreground the real subject of his article: the economist’s role as one of his era’s highest-wattage proponents of eugenics.

The American elite’s pre-World War II commitment to breeding out the “unfit” — defined variously as racial minorities, low-I.Q. whites, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the criminally inclined — is a story that defies easy stereotypes about progress and enlightenment. On the one hand, these American eugenicists tended to be WASP grandees like Fisher — ivory-tower dwellers and privileged have-mores with an obvious incentive to invent spurious theories to justify their own position.

But these same eugenicists were often political and social liberals — advocates of social reform, partisans of science, critics of stasis and reaction. “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers,” Conniff writes of Fisher and his peers, “but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.” From Teddy Roosevelt to the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, fears about “race suicide” and “human weeds” were common among self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement….

Douthat moves to what’s possible now…

That access, until recently, has required invasive procedures like amniocentesis. But last week brought a remarkable breakthrough: a team of scientists mapped nearly an entire fetal genome using blood from the mother and saliva from the father.

The procedure costs tens of thousands of dollars today, but the price will surely fall. And it promises access to a wealth of information about the fetus’s biology and future prospects — information that carries obvious blessings, but also obvious temptations.

Thanks to examples like Irving Fisher, we know what the elites of a bygone era would have done with that kind of information: they would have empowered the state (and the medical establishment) to determine which fetal lives should be carried to term, and which should be culled for the good of the population as a whole.

That scenario is all but unimaginable in today’s political climate. But given our society’s track record with prenatal testing for Down syndrome, we also have a pretty good idea of what individuals and couples will do with comprehensive information about their unborn child’s potential prospects. In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion. It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale.



Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Robin

    If pro-choice advocates are going to have any kind of consistency I think they will have to come to terms with the fact that this is the natural outcome of allowing elective abortions. Once you allow that elective abortions are permissible because the fetus, at least prior to some arbitrary point in gestation, is not given the legal protections due to other humans, then it makes very little difference whether the reason for the abortion is (1) it isn’t the right time for our family to have a child (2) the child will be born with a mild/moderate/severe abnormality (3) the child was going to be a male/female or (4) the child was going to have red/brown/blonde/black hair or a subpar IQ.

    The reason for elective abortion is immaterial if the child is merely a biological product that can be aborted electively. Real, consistent feminists recognize this even if it may make them a little queasy. Eventually the shock of aborting children simply because they are female/low IQ/nonathletic will wear off for pro-choice advocates and those reasons for abortion will be as natural as “we couldn’t afford another child” or “I was 18 and having a child would severely limit my opportunities for personal growth.”

  • phil_style

    It seems to me that under a “merit wins” premise, eugenics is more likely. This premise being that providing everyone has the same opportunities, merit will win the day.

    Unfortunately, in the real world, not everyone has the same opportunity. Many of us are born with obvious, and not so obvious hindrances to our opportunities that much more relative “merit” are required to overcome.

    Eugenics is one way to help secure the “even playing field” conditions required by this kind of “meritocracy”. It’s no surprise that eugenics is tied so closely to economics and is probably also aligned more easily with “pragmatic ethics” too.

  • JamesG

    “Eventually the shock of aborting children simply because they are female/low IQ/nonathletic will wear off for pro-choice advocates and those reasons for abortion will be as natural as ‘we couldn’t afford another child’ or ‘I was 18 and having a child would severely limit my opportunities for personal growth.'”

    Absolutely, because this is already the case in other parts of the world. When I lived in Russia just after the crash of the Soviet Union, this was already the typical man-on-the-street attitude. So much so, that a local museum displayed the unborn in jars of formaldehyde at *every* stage of development. To them, it was no different than a frog in a jar.

  • phil_style

    @ Robin,

    The reason for elective abortion is immaterial if the child is merely a biological product that can be aborted electively. Real, consistent feminists recognize this even if it may make them a little queasy.

    although the simple apologetic from the pro-choice side of the argument would be quite simply I think:
    1. That gender-selective abortions have overall negative measurable society-wide impact, and should therefore be regulated against on the basis of pragmatic ethics. This would seem, on the face of it, to actually be consistent with health-based eugenic abortions.
    2. That in “progressive” societies that valued the contributions of all able persons, there need be no reason for mothers to pre-select abortion on any other grounds apart from health. Selective abortions on the basis of gender, or hair colour would reflect an otherwise sick society in need of greater education etc…

    I’m not saying the above are convincing, or “right”, but I think the demand for consistency that you raise could be rationalised away.

  • Robin


    I agree that you can come up with justifications for allowing some elective abortions and dis-allowing others, but I think all of these will fall by the way-side because the fundamental feature of feminist-based elective abortions is that the woman needs no justification for choosing what to do with her own body.

    Some people who are pro-choice like to pretend they are being more moral than consistent feminists because they want to make it safe, legal, and rare…but the core of the pro-choice movement, women like Amanda Marcotte, will say “why does it need to be rare, if we agree that it needs to be rare, then we are implying there is something immoral about abortion that necessitates rarity. There is no moral calculus here, all that matters is that women have the authority to choose what to do with their own bodies”

    (That is not a quote from her, just my distillation of her thoughts after reading her blog daily for the past 4 years). For this group of people, the choice regarding whether or not to have an abortion is no more a moral decision than the choice on having your tonsils removed. It might be an issue of private struggle, but it is categorically wrong for outsiders to place any type of moral weight on the woman’s decision.

    RIGHT NOW segments of NARAL and NOW might have issues with sex-selective abortion, but they will eventually come to the conclusion that you can’t place society’s needs or other moral calculations above the decision making power of the mother, and they will eventually be comfortable with private decisions based upon eugenic-type rationale.

  • Robin

    As an aside, I remember sitting in my first graduate social work class. Out of 25 or so students almost all of them would be considered liberal. I remember discussing drug abuse by pregnant women. Even among these liberal women (there were 2 men in the class) most of them had no problems removing newborns from the mother’s custody if there had been serious drug abuse during gestation. Finally the outspoken feminist in the class had had enough and said that even if she had done crack right up until the moment of delivery the child shouldn’t be removed because before the baby was delivered it wasn’t a person, didn’t have any rights, and therefore no amount of pre-birth drug abuse could be considered evidence of child abuse because there was no child to be abused.

    That woman understood how to consistently apply pro-choice rationale to real world situations. Everyone else was trying to reconcile their moral compasses disjointedly to their professed worldview.

  • Chris

    Every decision is a moral decision. It’s a moral (immoral) decision for conservatives to demand that all pregnancies come to term without accepting broad social responsibility to carry the cost of doing so through that individual’s life. Yes, economics matter. I am personally pro-life but I cringe at the emphasis on protecting the fetus while saying (in effect) the heck with them and their parent(s) after they are born. That position is partial pro-life. If conservatives aren’t willing to share the cost of the living, they have no power to gripe about curtailing birth because of economic moral considerations.

  • Ava

    I have to approach this from a personal perspective and hope that the personal generalizes. The abortion issue is the only thing Ross Douthat and I agree on. I read this article and the reader comments before going to bed last night. I woke up at 2 am, and was kept awake tormented by the disturbing coldness of the reader comments about what should happen to human beings diagnosed with disabilities before birth. I am pro life, so much so that I turned down amniocentesis in each of my 4 pregnancies because I couldn’t deal with the threat the procedure presented to my children. God blessed me with 4 children, 3 “healthy” and a now 19-year-old son with spina bifida. He requires a wheelchair for mobility and all the modifications that entails, and a working ventricular shunt to keep his hydrocephalus from killing him. He may be able to pay his own way in society, but will very likely be a net economic drain on society. And he is in better shape than most other people born with spina bifida, not to mention all the other people with innumerable, uncategorizable forms of birth defects. So, looking at the political scene, I see the pro choice Democratic party, with adherents willing to abort children like my son for the good of society. Then, I see the Republican party whose leading members follow the teachings of Ayn Rand (herself pro abortion) , and seem to emphasize that one’s worth in society is actually measured by one’s economic independence. I don’t see either the Democratic (Progressive) or Republican (Conservative) position as consistently pro life. My personal solution has been to refuse to vote Republican again until Republican leaders acknowledge specifically that the right to life includes the right to health care without the requirement of being bankrupt or impoverished. It’s the best I can do to navigate through the current American political landscape. A last personal note of gratitude: I’ve followed Jesus Creed for several years and it’s been the most helpful Christian resource I’ve found for working through my own opinions on politics and all the other issues it covers. Keep up the good work.

  • JohnM

    “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers,” Conniff writes of Fisher and his peers, “but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.” – Actually, so were the Nazis all of those things, except of course peace activists.

    As for the present, a scenario that is “all but” unimaginable is a scenario that is imaginable. I think I would expect the conscious rationale to be different, but the hubris to be the same. It’s just that for the moment elitist hubris, aiming for an collectivist vision of human advancement, has been eclipsed by a populism and individualism. Will that survive the boomer generation? I don’t know, just musing as I go.

  • DRT


    That woman understood how to consistently apply pro-choice rationale to real world situations.

    This type of black and white thinking has to stop. Just because someone is pro-choice does not mean that they agree with the current implementation nor with the current education surrounding it.

    I am definitely pro-choice, but my views are very very far from the current way we allow abortions in the US. I don’t think we need to stop all abortions, I think we need to radically change the timing, education, support structures and requirements. To most outsiders I would seem to be more pro-life that pro-choice, and that may be true. I simply don’t believe that all abortions need to be eliminated.

  • Robin


    Let me clarify. That woman’s pro-choice sentiments were based on her commitment to the notion that the autonomy of the woman making the decision was penultimate. For her, any policy that had the potential to interfere with female autonomy in such decisions was anathema.

    For her, making drug use during gestation an indicator of child abuse meant that IN SOME CASES we would be giving the fetus legal protections which are reserved for humans, which would start us down a slippery slope of giving fetuses personhood protections in an expanding circle of cirumstances. For her it was never right for a fetus to have those protections because it would endanger the autonomy of the woman.

    Some people who are pro-choice are not operating from an ideological basis this pure. You seem to be operating from a “sometimes it is OK, but sometime it isn’t” basis. This type of basis would be anathema to most feminists because it implies that the woman only has autonomy over her body when society decides she should.

    I like your position more, but please don’t hold out any illusions that abortion activists in NARAL or NOW would agree with you.

  • William Harris

    While Douthat wants to see this through the grid of abortion, the more critical view would be to see this as an instance of economic choice. The decision on which children to have, how to engineer them presently looks as if it will be made as a market decision. How successful we can be in keeping genomic information out of the hands of parents remains to be seen. Spiritually, this turn to the self seems to be a far greater danger than the issue of abortion per se. Indeed, once the knowledge is easily available (and for now, thank heavens, it’s not), the decision about fetal life will not be one that can be prohibited, either because of private medicine or the availability of pro-choice jurisdictions. And that in turn only underscores that the issue at hand is deeply cultural in nature.

  • DRT

    Thanks Robin. I certainly don’t expect abortion activists to agree with my view.

  • Diane


    Thanks for your moving story. I agree with you that pro-life would be much easier to support if it were backed by a financial commitment on the part of society to fully support the living, even those who are considered “unproductive”. Two points undergird the abortion debate.
    I. There’s ALWAYS a choice: the point is WHO gets to make the choice. We tend to idealize the “good old” pre-Roe v. Wade days, but an older friend of mine, whose mother was a nurse, remembers in the 1940s the basin of water routinely kept under the bed of a women in labor–to drown babies born with deformities. Infanticide and abortion, whether legal or not, are always an option. Making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away. Also, even in the pre-R v W days, in states that had more liberal laws, doctors had the option to abort if a mother’s heath was deemed at risk–and back in the days of unquestioned authority doctors used this power to do what they thought was best–be it abort or not abort– often regardless of the mother’s wishes, often in ways we would now consider arbitrary, which is why the choice was put in the hands of women.
    II. We get caught in a false debate between limitlessness and scarcity. The Bible teaches we have abundance–enough resources with some left over (as long as we follow the rules–the story of the manna is key here as is the loaves and fishes). We don’t have limitless resources–that is not abundance. However, there IS enough. We can trust we will have what we need to support the children who are born with some margin left over.

  • Patrick

    There were a couple of articles posted a few weeks back about some planned parenthood “undercover” stories where sex selection is part of the desire for some abortions. I’d imagine we’ve been doing eugenics on a smaller scale than Margaret Sanger wanted now for 40 years.

    In each case, it was the girl that would be aborted.