This article is from the October 2006 BreakPoint WorldView magazine. Sign up today to receive the free online edition 10 times a year!
In the manifesto on the Sanctity of Life in a Brave New World that Chuck Colson and I launched with representative Christian leaders in the spring of 2004, we addressed four key areas for Christian concern at the outset of the biotech century. They all converge on one concept: eugenics. Eugenics is the idea that we should weed out the sick and the diseased and favor the strong and healthy. It can take many forms, some much worse than others. In any case, eugenics will be the dominant concept of the twenty-first century. How we handle its many facets will determine, under God, the human future.
Back in the middle of the nineteenth century, while Charles Darwin was writing about the survival of the fittest as the driving force behind his idea of evolution, his cousin Francis Galton came up with another idea: encouraging supposedly superior men and women to marry each other so that their children would be fitter. Eugenics literally means good genes. It is a made-up word, like the related term euthanasia, which claims to be a good death. At the beginning of the twentieth century, this way of thinking drove the new science of genetics to build a movement to breed better people. While largely forgotten now, it fast became the dominant social movement in America 100 years ago.
The goal of eugenics is to produce healthy, attractive, gifted babies in order to have better, more productive adults. It was connected to the racism that was then endemic in much of American society and used terms and analogies from animal breeding to press the case for the need to establish good stock for the future of the nation and weed out the weaklings.
With these ideas in mind, we chose these themes for the manifesto: gene patents, genetic engineering (designer babies), cloning, and genetic discrimination.
Gene patents. Few Americans realize that many of the genes in their own bodies have already been patented. This means not simply that certain companies hold patents on tests for genetic diseases, but that your own doctor is not able to examine those genes without paying a royalty and getting permission. Since patent law has always in the past held that you cannot patent products of nature, this is strange. At some points the courts might take a different tack, and if not, legislation could arise to change things. Indeed, many scientists and some companies oppose gene patents because they hinder research.
It gets worse. A few years ago, the biotech industry actually lobbied against an attempt to ensure that no patents would be issued on complete human embryos. Why? Because, of course, they want to keep the option open for embryos that have been genetically engineered (just as there are patents on engineered crops). As one leading legal expert wrote in an editorial comment on strategy, there are millions of babies born in the United States every year, and they want to collect royalties on them.
Genetic engineering and designer babies. One reason biotech proponents want to have a patent on human embryos is that the technology to make big changes in human natureto enable you to design your babyis advancing. These changes could be inheritable (changes in the germlinethe cells that determine heredity), so that human biology itself changes in the process. At the moment this cannot be done, but there are a thousand genetic tests for embryos and fetuses that reveal inherited diseasesand lead to many abortions and destroyed embryos. These tests also reveal the sex of the embryo, and sex selection is starting to gain popularity. Babies are becoming designer products.
Cloning. Cloning technology is a key stepping-stone toward other biotech developments. For this reason, some biotech leaders have been fighting hard to defend their right to mass-produce human embryos for experiments, and now there is growing support for the cloning of babies.
Genetic discrimination. Genetic information gives some people power over other people. So there is a move to change the law to make it clear that no human being should be subject to genetic discrimination. But the law can do only so much. In the movie Gattaca, we see a society that is built on genetic discrimination. But even there, it is technically illegal.
These four themes come together in the eugenics agenda, because they supply both the technologies and the frame of reference in which a new eugenics can flourish.
BY AMERICAS LEADING
When most people hear the word eugenics they think of the Germany of the 1930s and 40s and the terrible crimes committed by the Nazis. But the Nazis did not invent eugenics. They built on ideas that originated in the English-speaking world and were powerful in America. In his book The War Against the Weak, Edwin Black, a best-selling author who has also written about the Holocaust, takes us back in depressing detail to the enormously popular eugenics industry that caught the diseased imagination of the United States in the first part of the last century. His subtitle says it all: Eugenics and Americas Campaign to Create a Master Race.
Black explains how things were organized. With funding from the great philanthropists of the day (Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Harriman), the eugenicists got moving:
In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a laboratory complex at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island that stockpiled millions of index cards on ordinary Americans, as researchers carefully plotted the removal of families, bloodlines and whole peoples. From Cold Spring Harbor, eugenics advocates agitated in the legislatures of America, as well as the nations social service agencies and associations
Here is an example of how it worked in Virginia:
A single day in the 1930s was typical. The Montgomery County sheriff drove up unannounced onto Brush Mountain and began one of his many raids against the hill families considered socially inadequate. . . . On this day the Montgomery County sheriff grabbed six brothers from one family, bundled them into several vehicles and then disappeared down the road. Earlier, the sheriff had come for the boys sister. Another time, deputies snared two cousins. These mountain people were systematically sterilized under a Virginia law compelling such operations for those ruled unfit.
THE CARRIE BUCK STORY
The second most infamous decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (after the pro-slavery ruling Dred Scott) is Buck v. Bell.
Carrie Buck was born out of wedlock in 1906. At puberty, according to records, Carrie began to cause trouble. When she was 18 years old, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, and her adoptive family requested that she be institutionalized. So in January 1924 Carrie Buck was committed to a state institution because a court ruled her to be epileptic and feeble-minded.
There followed a move to sterilize her against her will. The Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell marked the most startling statement of the way in which eugenics had seeped into the mindset of America: It would be better for society if her hereditary traits were not passed on to another generation. Descriptions of Carrie Buck included things such as having a life of immorality, prostitution, and untruthfulness. At one point during the trial, an expert witness stated of Carrie Buck, her mother, and child that these people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.
On May 2, 1927, the Court approved the sterilization of Carrie Buck, upholding state laws that deemed compulsory sterilization constitutional in people considered genetically unfit. The Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the most famous judge of his generation, delivered the opinion of the Court: It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough. Better for All the World, Holmess phrase, is the title of a new book by Harry Bruinius, who describes in detail the history of the eugenic sterilization movement.
In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that Carrie and her family were seriously deficient in intellect. It seems clear that she and her mother were locked away in institutions because people did not approve of their behavior. Sadly, Carrie Bucks daughter, Vivian, died of an intestinal disorder when she was in the second grade. Her teachers reported that she was smart. Her mother lived on into the 1980s. Meanwhile eugenic sterilization laws spread to nearly thirty states.
Californias law was one of the most significant. Black writes:
In 1909, California became the third state to adopt such laws. Ultimately, eugenics practitioners coercively sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands, forcibly segregated thousands in colonies, and persecuted untold numbers in ways we are just learning. Before World War II, nearly half of coercive sterilizations were done in California, and even after the war, the state accounted for a third of all such surgeries.
But the impact of the eugenics movement was not limited to incarceration and sterilization. In 1920, the first of many fitter family contests was conducted at the Kansas Free Fair. Fitter Families were judged by their physical health, records of heredity, educational attainments, and measurable intellectual capacitiesthe sort of qualifications you see coveted in advertisements for egg donors today. Winning families were awarded with a medal that carried the logo, Yea, I have a Goodly Heritage.
The tragic story of the wide embrace of eugenics in America is told vividly on the website www.eugenicsarchive.org. As Christine Rosen has shown in her book Preaching Eugenics, the mainline churchesand synagogueshad a key role in promoting the eugenic agenda, which was driven by racism as well as the pseudo-science of eugenics itself.
One of Hitlers first acts upon taking power was to pass a national law for the mandatory sterilization of certain members of the population, based on U.S. state laws. This law targeted half a million people who were physically or mentally impaired and included those who were feebleminded, psychotic, epileptic, blind, deaf, malformed, and chronic alcoholics. During the 1930s in Germany, some 250,000 Germans were sterilized under these laws. When the death camps were opened, sterilization became less frequent, because many of those who would have been sterilized were instead sent to concentration camps and killed.
A EUGENIC FUTURE?
No one has suggested that we shall soon see mass sterilization or death camps here in America. Yet already we have witnessed a generation of eugenic abortion, in which enormous social pressures are put on mothers to end the lives of unborn children with inherited diseases and disabilities. The development of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) offers a more sterile version of the same thing, using in vitro fertilization to avoid the implantation of defective offspring. We need to read the signs of the timeand the trend is moving in one direction.
Not only does society want to get rid of the defective, it is increasingly interested in choosing babies sexand once the technology comes along, in choosing and changing other features. Meanwhile, turning embryos into patentable materialor propertysets the scene for more barbaric options, in which humans are, in effect, owned by others (despite the Fourteenth Amendment). And the pressure to use peoples private genetic information to deny jobs and health insurance to those deemed likely to get sickperhaps many years lateris already strong.
The big picture is becoming clearer, as we connect the dots and see how these very different trends and technologies combine to undermine the dignity of the individual, and especially the protection of the weak, in wholly fresh ways. As I said in my keynote to the National Right to Life Convention earlier in 2006, if you were pro-life in the twentieth century, you need to see yourself as pro-human in the twenty-first.
|For Further Reading and Information|
For more information and references, see Joni Eareckson Tada and Nigel M. de S. Cameron, How to Be a Christian in a Brave New World (Zondervan, 2006).
Roberto Rivera, Playing God, BreakPoint WorldView, January/February 2008.