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Are We All Eugenicists Now?

August 1st, 2007 · 3 Comments

Ross Douthat is defending his application of the term “eugenicist” to people who don’t have any quarrel with selective abortion of fetuses with Down Syndrome, in part on the grounds that some people who support reproductive freedom take the position that, in fact, there is nothing wrong with the “eugenic” goal of seeking to ensure that the next generation is genetically healthier or smarter, provided only voluntary means are used. I’ve argued this myself, but as I also noted, most invocations of the term today are attempts to link benign non-coercive practices with genuinely ugly ones. I may be willing to say “there’s nothing wrong with eugenics” here, where I’m able to provide proper context. But because the term is so tightly bound up with compulsion and racism, it would still be confusing at best, and a misleading smear at worst, to describe me as a eugenicist. There’s also a sense in which a big fan of the song “Right Here Waiting” could be called a “Marxist,” but this would be a signally unhelpful label without a good deal of clarification.

Ross’ defense misfires for another reason: Whether a policy or practice is “eugenic” or not is at least partly a matter of intention, and I very much doubt that parents who terminate a pregnancy because they find out the fetus has some serious congenital ailment are motivated by a desire to improve the gene pool. I’m guessing that in almost none of these cases would it make a difference to the decision if the ailment were non-genetic, and so would not be passed to the next generation, but otherwise had all the same characteristics. Still less are defenders of abortion rights centrally motivated by such concerns.

Ross wants to argue that because the aggregate result of many such private choices would be the near-elimination of certain genetic conditions, anyone who opposes restrictions on such choice is, in effect, objectively pro-eugenic. But we now have a truly huge gulf between Ross’ deployment of “eugenic” and it historical use to describe coercive attempts to impose a consciously planned pattern. “Eugenics” now describes a result, whether or not it is aimed at intentionally, and whatever the mechanisms by which it’s brought about.

But of course, Ross too primarily objects to certain methods of achieving “eugenic” goals, viz., abortion and genetic engineering. He writes:

But the more you accept pro-choice premises, the more likely you are to share the point of view expressed by the other commenter Ezra quotes – namely, that aborting fetuses with genetic abnormalities is no different than two people at risk of passing on a genetic disorder to their offspring choosing not to procreate in the first place.

Turn this around, though. Presumably, this means Ross thinks there is no serious moral problem with “two people at risk of passing on a genetic disorder to their offspring choosing not to procreate in the first place.” Perhaps he is not even particularly exercised at the thought that someone might prefer a smart or tall mate in part on the grounds that they hope to bear tall, smart children. Even if he is, I’m sure he would have no desire to impose legal penalties on such choices, were this possible. But then, by his own definition, Ross is also “objectively” pro-eugenics, and what we’re really haggling about is which mechanisms are acceptable. The historical eugenics movement, after all, was very concerned with encouraging “proper” mating choices, and Ross doesn’t seem to think “eugenicist” is any less applicable to someone who would legally permit such choices than to someone who would legally encourage or compel them. Is it obvious yet why this label is not particularly illuminating here?

Tags: Science



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Glenn // Aug 1, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Yet another entry in the increasingly capacious catagory of things Julian has written so I don’t have to. I suspect a healthy dose of Parfit would alleviate the dismal misconceptions endemic in this conversation.

  • 2 Grant Gould // Aug 1, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    The “eugenic” snipe is particular silly as respects Down Syndrome as is not in the gene pool at all — with only a single-digit number of exceptions, Down Syndrome victims cannot reproduce, and the condition was not inherited in those cases. So a eugenist, meaning to improve the human gene stock, would not even approach Down Syndrome as an eugenic cause.

  • 3 Bill // Aug 15, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    I have a somewhat relevant post.


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