by Stephanie Hauer
America has an abhorrent, and often overlooked, history of eugenics practices. It has been present since the early 1900’s, and has affected tens of thousands of lives. America’s eugenics movements provided the templates that the Nazis used to force the sterilization of “undesirable populations.” Hitler himself wrote a letter to one of the most prominent proponents of eugenics in America, Madison Grant, to thank him for his advocacy and ideas.
After WWII, when the world was forced to reckon with the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, eugenics was suddenly looked down upon. Yet it was still quietly practiced in America and other countries all through very recent history. There’s examples of forced sterilizations in Australia from 2012, and in California from 2013.
Eugenics is wrong for a multitude of reasons. At a minimum, eugenics objectifies people. It treats people not as unique individuals with stories and lives and desires, but as interchangeable variables. It ignores people’s capacity to grow and change; instead, it relegates them to being a direct result of their circumstances. Additionally, eugenic practices often violate people’s right to bodily autonomy. Each person deserves the right to determine what happens to their own body, and they deserve to be properly informed before any medical procedure is undertaken. At its core, eugenics applies the desires of another person onto the body of the victim, shattering their autonomy in favor of external control. Throughout history, there are countless examples where the patients did not know what was about to happen to them, and did not give their informed consent for the procedure. Additionally, eugenics frequently goes hand-in-hand with abortion and euthanasia, so it often violates people’s very right to life as well.
Another problem with eugenics is its basis in racist, classist, and ableist thinking. The movement gains traction by positing that people of color, poor people, and/or people with physical and intellectual disabilities are “lesser.” Eugenic thinking claims that your life is only valuable if you check certain boxes, and that those who don’t shouldn’t even be alive. We know that in a culture of life, each human being is respected and valued for their innate dignity. Eugenics can never be compatible with a consistent application of the pro-life ethic.
Eugenics is a common danger when it comes to people with disabilities, because it has been described by proponents as a “cure.” However, these practices do not actually “cure” any diseases; they simply kill the person with the condition. This allows supporters to say, “look, we eradicated x,” when in reality, they just murdered anyone who had it. Such misrepresentation is seen in our world today: Iceland is commonly described as having eliminated Down Syndrome. They typically only have one or two children born with Down syndrome each year, and those births are usually the result of an oversight in testing. The abortion rate for children who test positive for Down syndrome in the womb is virtually 100%. So Iceland hasn’t actually gotten rid of Down syndrome; they’re just killing the kids who have it.
That is the danger that comes with identifying the genetic markers for disabilities. So when Autism Speaks announced that it had cataloged 10,000 genomes in MSSNG, an open-source database of the genetic sequences of people with autism and their family members, people got nervous. One person took to Twitter to say, “MSSNG: We're collecting data on Autism Genes™️ for..... treatment. yeah. for personalized ‘treatment.’ So we can Understand Autism Better. There's definitely no motivation to, say, eradicate autism. nope. this data definitely wouldn't be used for like, eugenics. absolutely not.”
Sullivan Swift explains the dangers of MSSNG really well in this article, and also identifies better alternatives. Swift points out that this genetic information as it stands is only really useful for prenatal screening and targeted abortions. They question the ethics of “curing” autism by adjusting people’s DNA and changing the essence of who they are. Swift has autism, and knows firsthand how complicated the impacts of such intervention would be. Finally, they call for compassion and more helpful research. “We need to understand more about the lives of autistic people, how comorbid conditions impact us, how we navigate our world, and how society can help lift us up – a starkly different goal from reducing the rates of a non-disease.”
Ultimately, we have to be on our guard. Eugenics does not often appear around us under that name anymore. Its supporters know that calling the practice “eugenics” outright will be met with resistance. Instead, it masquerades through the world around us with subtlety and secrecy. It is called a “cure,” or “treatment,” or “eradicating a disease.” It is up to us to interrogate the stories around us, and identify the underlying principles. If it threatens the lives or autonomy of ourselves or those around us, it must be stopped.