Monday, February 19, 2007

What goes around, comes around

If you were to bring up the subject of eugenics in conversation, I would suspect that many people would have to stop and think a bit about what you were referring to. Of those that actually were conversant with the concept, I suspect that most would associate it with the quest for racial purity taken up by Nazi Germany. Few, however, would think of the United States.

Yesterday morning I was in a local bookstore and was browsing thru the book “Choosing Naia”. I am drawn to reading stories of people’s journeys, and this book is a good one that chronicles an interracial couple’s raising of a daughter with Down’s Syndrome. The couple recount how they had taken a screening test for genetic abnormalities (including Down’s) which had come up negative. They go on to say that even if it was positive, they were going to use the information to prepare themselves to deal with it, and not to abort the child. This is backed up by the fact that when the mother again became pregnant, they decided against any prenatal testing, deciding that they already knew they could deal with whatever happened. At one point they had a slightly uncomfortable conversation with the mother’s parents centering on abortion and its use in preventing the birth of children deemed to be defective.

When I came home from the bookstore I read a piece on Autism Vox talking about genetic testing, and how some tests have intimated that they might be able to screen for autistic like behaviors.

While in college I was dimly aware of the eugenics movement in the US, but always thought it was mainly something that happened somewhere else (i.e., Nazi Germany). I’ve been reading a lot lately about prenatal testing being used to encourage parents to abort kids with Down’s Syndrome, as well as many people wondering if this is the future that will be pursued when/if definitive testing for autism surfaces. George Will has written about this subject here and here. I’ve also started looking into the history of the eugenics movement in the US, as I believe that it may have some bearing on how people still act today.

Eugenics is a social philosophy which advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention. The term eugenics was coined in England by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, in the late 19th century. Early proponents focused on selective breeding as a means towards this end. In the 20th century proponents included such prominent people as Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Alexander Graham Bell.

Another more ominous form of eugenics included forced sterilization laws. The first law successfully passed in the US was in the state of Indiana in 1907, which was followed by laws in California and Washington. Eventually 27 states passed laws that were aimed at forced sterilization of the mentally retarded, the blind, deaf, criminals, and epileptics. Different states had different variations of the laws, and as many as 65,000 individuals were sterilized against there will under these laws. Although after WWII this practice faded greatly, there were still a number done into the 1960’s, and even sporadic cases as late as 1981. During the 1970’s Native Americans underwent forced sterilization, which was encouraged by government policies.

Abortion was legalized across the US in 1973. Prenatal testing enables testing for things like Down’s Syndrome and Spina Bifida. With the onset of non-invasive prenatal testing, some estimate that as many as 80-90% of fetuses with these two conditions are aborted, and many feel that the “right” to abort a disabled child has become one’s “duty”.

The OB-GYN societies of both the US and Canada are both recommending prenatal testing for Down’s syndrome for all pregnant women, not just women over 35.

So basically there has been an uninterrupted period of time from the 19th century until now where eugenics has been practiced in some form (selective breeding, forced sterilization, abortion) in the US. It’s not a new concept, but something that has been with us for a long time. And it is so entrenched in our subconscious that most people don’t really blink when they encounter societal attitudes that encourage “weeding out” so called “defectives” among us.

Joe is 208


abfh said...

Yes, the Nazis got some of their ideas from US eugenics advocates, sadly. And you're quite right that over the years, many people have come to accept these attitudes without questioning them...

Club 166 said...

The editor of JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) rightly cringes and is apologetic regarding articles on eugenics that appeared in JAMA in the early 20th century. Yet nowhere in mainstream medicine is there any outcry regarding testing for genetic defects coupled with genetic "counseling".

While they couch their support in language of "individual choice", everyone knows that all such mothers are heavily encouraged to "terminate" pregnancies that are determined to be "defective". And if a mother decides to go ahead anyway, then friends and family blame the mother for any problems they have to deal with.