My post the other day on the blogospheric spat about the deployment of the language of “eugenics” against supporters of abortion rights (including the right of parents to abort children with genetic defects) provoked this reply from John Goes:
This controversy is plainly another front in the ongoing war between pro-life and pro-choice movements. If a living human being is being killed, whatever the reason, murder has been committed. If the motive is to eliminate “defective” babies, even out of a supposed compassion for the baby (because Down kids live terrible lives or because they are so hard to take care of?), it is eugenics by any reasonable definition. The eugenics analogy/charge will keep coming up because it cuts to the heart of the contradiction at the heart of the pro-choice position (that abortion is voluntary), and those with their heads somewhat outside of their asses are able to sense this and become naturally squeamish. That’s the real point, sans obfuscation.
He goes on in the comments:
You and Ezra seem to believe this can’t possibly be eugenics because eugenics implies murder (an involuntary mechanism), while Ross and others begin with the premise that it is murder and thus conclude that aborting fetuses on a selectively genetic basis is eugenics…. Thus you should be able to assume for the sake of argument, as it were, that all the unborn are human beings. Beginning with this premise, what else would you call the self directed slaughter of all children that didn’t meet certain genetic requirements, if we were talking about 1 yr olds for example? How is that not eugenics?
This is confused, but perhaps the debate has become sufficiently diffuse at this point that the confusion is understandable. So I’m going to reiterate here (with some edits) the synopsis of the disagreement, as I see it, that I posted in the comments there.
First, even if we all decide to stipulate that the mechanism in question counts as murder, problems remain. Suppose some people falsely believe it’s OK for parents to kill any child under 5-years-old. They think that the right to kill very young children is an important component of parental autonomy. And suppose, in turn, that parents who exercise this right would most often kill children with serious genetic defects. There are many things you could say about the advocates of this hideous policy, but calling them “eugenicists” would be a stretch, because what they are (wrongly) defending is an autonomy right, not the imposition of a particular trajectory of macro-level genetic improvement. Defending a right of parental murder might be as morally repugnant as calling for a program of “culling the weak,” but it’s not the same thing, even if the outcome ends up being similar.
But leaving that aside, it’s important to recognize that the “eugenic” tag is supposed to constitute an independent reason to be hostile to abortion. If we all agree abortion is murder, then whether it has any eugenic aspects is almost ludicrously beside the point: The problem is it’s murder. The point of invoking eugenics is to establish something else questionable about this practice, given moral disagreement about whether it constitutes murder. (Even for those who think it does, that it’s “eugenic” is supposed to make it especially bad.) This is why Ross keeps linking things like this Michael Sandel essay, which attacks the goal of “perfecting” human beings, whether or not it entails any coercion. If this argument is going to have independent force, it has to bracket the question about the intrinsic morality of abortion. Otherwise the argument is redundant: “Selective abortion is coercive, therefore like eugenics. And eugenics, because coercive, was bad.”
The problem here is that there were all sorts of things one might believe were wrong with the historical eugenics movement:
- It involved compulsion against adults who were subject to sterilization or forced abortion.
- It embedded false racist assumptions.
- Over and above the intrinsic immorality of the compulsion, it supposed that technocratic central planning of the nation’s genetic stock was desirable — something we might object to even if carried out by a program of exhortation or positive incentives. Even someone who believes parents entitled to attempt to produce children with the kinds of traits they desire might think it is not the business of government to announce which are the universally desirable and undesirable traits.
- It assumed that it is a permissible goal to attempt to deliberately create human beings with particular kinds of desirable characteristics.
Now, for the reasons I’ve already advanced, even the connection of (4) with advocacy of abortion rights is tenuous, since there’s a difference between promoting a certain sort of goal and permitting people to act in furtherance of that goal because you think they’re entitled to autonomy. Still, of the objections that can be raised against the historical eugenics movement, it’s clearly mainly (4) that someone like Ross wants to rely on. So the shape of his argument is, in effect: Bracketing to the extent possible the question of what is inherently wrong with aborting any fetus, liberal abortion policies have the additional ugly feature that they would in practice result in “eugenic” fetal selection by private individuals, which is bad because of the way it makes us think of future generations as commodities, and so on, as elaborated in the Sandel essay.
Now, I think that on this point of contention Ross and Sandel are wrong, and I’m happy to argue that point with them. The problem is that, as we’ve observed, there are at least three other objections, beyond this argument, that could be raised against “eugenicism” historically. Hence the complaint that it’s misleading and prejudicial to characterize this very real and legitimate debate as being between opponents and supporters of “eugenics,” which carries all the connotations of (1)-(3).
Update: LP in the comments suggests that one can interpret “eugenic” motivation as a factor that might make the already-bad practice of abortion even worse by analogy with hate-crimes legislation, insofar as it may signal to adults with certain genetic conditions that they are widely regarded as undesirable. There’s something to this, but I don’t think it was Ross’ argument.
An additional argument occurs to me, which is that if you’re persuaded that abortion is bad, then anything that increases the number of abortions is also bad. And you might imagine that, over time, a “eugenic mindset” will tend to emerge, such that people will come to regard it as normal (and perhaps normative) to routinely abort all but the “best” fetuses.
Here, though, the anti-abortion argument and the independent anti-perfectionist argument may cut in different directions. Because as technology improves, genetic engineering will be a more attractive way of producing desired traits and eliminating disfavored ones than selective abortion, and so the former should to some extent serve as a substitute for the latter.