A Cautionary Reminder

I recently had the opportunity to give a guest lecture on the topic of eugenics. As I was reading and preparing for the talk, I was struck with the thought of how quickly it is we forget our past, especially when it is unattractive. When we think of the topic of eugenics, many of us almost instinctively think of Nazi Germany – and rightfully so – as approximately 400,000 forced sterilizations took place as a part of eugenic practices. However, we need to remember our own past, as well, where in over 30 states we enforced eugenic sterilization laws leading to 65,000 people being forcibly sterilized between 1907 and 1974. The reasons for these forced sterilizations in the U.S. were many, but predominantly reflect devaluation of individuals who were poor and institutionalized.

The goal of the eugenics movement sounded benign enough, and perhaps even altruistic: to better human welfare and reduce infant mortality, yet it resulted in a dark reality. People were classified and valued based on their intelligence, their physical characteristics, their genealogy, and based on their social value. This valuation was promoted in popular culture and enforced at law (read the case of Buck v. Bell, for an example). I want to remind us of this not to point out how far we’ve come, or to lay blame in the past, but as a cautionary reminder. Discrimination based on race, class, appearance, etc., still exists. Although we no longer have eugenics based forcible sterilization laws in place as we did in the past, discrimination and valuation of other human beings is still very real. As we practice our professions and interact with others on a daily basis, may we be mindful of this and act treating everyone with respect and recognizing their inherent value as a child of God.

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Terrill Wade
Terrill Wade
4 years ago

I appreciate your comments and reminder – they are well worthwhile.

My concern is that our society has moved far past the realm of visible government/authority-promoted eugenics-by-sterilization and is well into the realm of invisible personal/private eugenics-by-death on the basis of:

– our life plan being messed up by the person (abortion),
– wrong sex of the person (mostly female discrimination, especially in poor countries)
– predicted poor health/intelligence of the person (genetic findings in prenatal testing, PGD testing)

This form of discrimination against other human beings is much harder to see (be aware of) than the sterilizations mentioned above because the person concerned has no voice or supportive friends. I expect it will only increase as our prenatal tests become more extensive and and become available earlier in the pregnancy.

It is also a much more thorough discrimination because the person is not only sterilized but removed altogether.

I do realize this comment reflects my view (medically and scripturally derived) of the embryo and fetus being a human person and possessing inherent value as a child of God, and that others may have a different view. That difference of viewpoints remains the pre-eminent issue underlying current discrimination.