More than one friend made sure I saw the recent CBS news story with the headline, “”What kind of society do you want to live in?”: Inside the country where Down syndrome is disappearing.”
My daughter was diagnosed in the womb with spina bifida, and yes, the doctor prompted us to consider aborting her, and yes, like in Iceland, we were shown to the genetic counselor immediately afterwards. At the time, I knew nothing about genetic counseling or its ideological history, and I did not know that we needed to be on our guard. Per the article:
Quijano asked Stefansson, “What does the 100 percent termination rate, you think, reflect about Icelandic society?”
“It reflects a relatively heavy-handed genetic counseling,” he said. “And I don’t think that heavy-handed genetic counseling is desirable. … You’re having impact on decisions that are not medical, in a way.”
Ironically, and sadly, even, I saw people responding to this article by saying that *this* is nothing like what the Nazis did, because in this case, the people are making the choice, and not the government. But this statement belies that notion. First of all, the genetic counselor has the ability to influence a parent’s decision by selecting what information to share. Second of all, the counselor appears in the role of “The Expert,” and his advice given disproportionate weight. Third of all, governments are involved in shaping the outlook of genetic counselors and do so through designing the licensing requirements, and so on. While the connection is not direct, there are indirect ways in which the government CAN be making the choice for the parents, even if it appears on its face that it is the parents making the choice.
I’ll return to this in a moment.
Several folks highlighted the irony of Americans freaking out over what was going on in Charlottesville, while another aspect of the Nazi ideology enjoys broad currency and raises little fuss.
Indeed. Sad to say, that speaks volumes about the level of outright ignorance that pervades our society, as well as to how easily it is to lead the masses by the nose. In other words, killing defectives in the womb is thoroughly consistent with the Nazi ideology, and people literally have no idea that this is the case.
If you are reading that and feel that idea is absurd, then if you have any objective bones in your body, take a moment and allow yourself to be educated.
The ideological grounds for elimination of the unfit was well established before the Nazis arose to power, as, for example, in the findings of Binding and Hoche, two prominent German thinkers who wrote that it was acceptable for people to commit suicide, or if they are incapacitated, to have their family kill them, or if the family is unwilling (due to emotional attachments, for example) then the State should intervene to do the right thing, which the family won’t. The State is interested in ending suffering of course, but the State also must think of the economic burdens on society posed by allowing such people to live. You can get Binding and Hoche’s book, which I publish, on Amazon.
That was Germany, in 1920. The Nazis were not even yet a glint in their father’s eye. That is, they didn’t exist yet. In other words, Binding and Hoche were only reflecting mainstream scholarly thinking. When the Nazis came to power, one of the first things they did was pass the “The Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.” (1933.) Only a few years later, the T4 project would begin, whereby German doctors would help identify and destroy countless disabled people–including fellow Germans. They would use the technology they devised for mass killing and disposal of remains in their LATER efforts against the Jews.
It is important to note that when they were directing their attention towards defective people, they were NOT acting outside of the thinking of a great many intellectuals, both inside and outside of Germany. This is proved in any number of ways, but not least of which is the fact that, AGAIN, they eliminated fellow WHITE, blue-eyed, GERMANS, who were mentally ill or physically defective. And they did this FIRST, fully expecting, and receiving, support from the ‘experts.’
But it wasn’t only in Germany that such scientists and other ‘experts’ were thinking about dealing defective people.
I have been collecting examples of Americans who had the same idea and putting them on my website, eugenics.us. There are far more than I have had time to list. (If anyone would like to fund my research and efforts to publicize my findings, I’d much appreciate it!). But some samples which I have had time to upload:
Dr. G. Frank Lydston of the University of Illinois proposed using “toxic gas in sealed compartments ‘to kill convicted murders and driveling imbeciles.'” That appears to have been around 1910.
The Yale, then Wisconsin professor, Leon Cole advances a position that in any other context, devoid of attribution, one would assume was written by the most devout Nazi:
Chatterton-Hill, in a striking simile, has likened the condition of the social organism under these circumstances to that of a biological organism in which catabolism is exceeding anabolism, resulting in autointoxication, the gradual poisoning of the civic body. Death is the normal process of elimination in the social organism, and we might carry the figure a step further and say that in prolonging the lives of defectives we are tampering with the functioning of the social kidneys!
The neurologist Foster Kennedy, writing as a professor at Cornell in 1941, proposed that upon the age of five, every defective child should be “considered under law by a competent medical board” and if it has no hope, “it is a merciful and kindly thing to relieve that defective–often tortured and convulsed, grotesque and absurd, useless and foolish, and entirely undesirable–of the agony of living.” He writes:
So the place for euthanasia, I believe, is for the completely hopeless defective: nature’s mistake; something we hustle out of sight, which should never have been seen at all. These should be relieved of the burden of living, because for them the burden of living at no time can produce any good thing at all. They can never have the joy of work nor the joy of play and, for many of them–perhaps the defective dystonias–even the placidity of the vegetable world. For us to allow them to continue such a living is sheer sentimentality, and cruel too; we deny them as much solace as we give our stricken horse. Here we may most kindly kill, and have no fear of error.
In England, in 1930, the doctor Richard Berry, defended himself from accusations in an essay called “The Lethal Chamber Proposal” saying,
Until I read your April number I was unaware that even this mild opinion had aroused either support or a ” storm of protest.” Certainly none such appeared in The Times, but in any case I do not share your views as to the ” sanctity of human life ” or ” the almost insuperable legal and practical difficulties ” which a lethal chamber would involve.
He grounds his view on the laws of nature (SCIENCE!):
Every living animal, man included, conforms and must conform, whether he wills it or not, to the two great Laws of Nature-the Law of Self-preservation and the Law of the Reproduction of the Species and Nature takes no risk in her ample provision for both. Sterilization cuts across-in more senses of the word than one-the second of these laws. Segregation appears to interfere with both; whilst a lethal chamber attacks the first of these laws, and incidentally the second as well. If Professor E. W. MacBride be correct-and there can be none familiar with the facts who would differ from him-that unless the birth rate of the mentally defective be restricted, “the British Nation as a virile people, is doomed,” it appears probable that politicians and people will both have to face all three-Sterilization, Segregation, and the Lethal Chamber.
I could go on and on producing examples from AMERICA and from ENGLAND and parts NOT Germany, as they are countless. (I have posted more, here. More to come, as I have time and resources.) But one of the best examples, which shows more clearly the affinity between the Nazi outlook on defectives and American thinking, especially pertaining to the ideological history of genetic counseling, would be the case of CF Dight.
Dight was a leader of the Minnesota Eugenics Society. Upon his death, he left funds to begin an institute for the training of genetic counselors (at the time, called ‘heredity clinics’ and so on). Oh, and he saw Hitler as advancing the same idea as he was. In 1933, Dight sent this letter to Hitler:
The text of the letter:
I inclose [sic] a clipping from the Minneapolis Journal of Minnesota, United States of America, relating to, and praising your plan to stamp out mental inferiority among the German people.
I trust you will accept my sincere wish that your efforst [sic] along that line will be a great success and will advance the eugenics movement in other nations as well as in Germany.
He attached a clipping of his letter to the local newspaper:
The report persistently comes from Berlin that congenital feeble-mindedness, insanity, epilepsy, and some other serious conditions that are inheritable are to be stamped out among the German people. Adolf Hitler is having broad and scientific plans for this. If carried out effectively, it will make him the leader in the greatest national movement for human betterment the world has ever seen. The world’s two great needs are co-operation in industry for social good and biological race betterment through eugenics.
I bolded the ‘scientific plans’ part. You see, the word ‘Nazi’ has become a weapon used to bludgeon opponents, but few people actually know what the Nazis really believed–or that many of those beliefs are shared in the present day… not by white supremacists. By you, perhaps. And you don’t consider yourself a Nazi, do you? You only think you are acting, believing, and advocating, on the basis of science and out of concern for the reduction of suffering. (What could go wrong?) “Surely there is some overlap here worth reflecting on.”
Now, there is a rest of the story.
After the war, the hordes of American and British ‘experts’ who embraced the eugenic program as science couldn’t very well be out spoken about it anymore, now could they? The Nazis had soiled a good thing. How to reclaim it?
There was a need to repackage themselves and re-deploy, as it were. They did this in a number of different ways, which are all important and worthy of my telling you about, but let me focus on how their retooling was manifested in genetic counseling.
I mentioned Dight, and he is indeed a good place to start. Not only did he have an institute at a major university which churned out like-minded heredity counselors, he helped pass eugenics legislation that was on the books in Minnesota for decades after that. But for our purposes, the statement made by his successor, Sheldon Reed, in 1957, helps orient ourselves on how eugenicists were re-framing their efforts:
… there is no important distinction between research in “pure” genetics and the research in “applied” genetics such as eugenics. Our present day use of the term “human genetics” instead of “eugenics” may be financially and politically expedient but there is no great philosophical difference between them.
Not insignificantly, this was in an essay published by the reputable “The American Journal of Human Genetics.” This journal is still very much in print, and no one considers for a moment that its writers may be advocates of Nazi ideology. Many of the eugenicists relocated their efforts to organizations such as “The American Society of Human Genetics.” This organization is also alive and well, but people are not at all aware of its origins or current work, and naturally, no one would think of them as advocates for Nazism; no, pure science! And not, by the by, indifferent to how genetic counselors are licensed.
And yet, the first president of the organization H. J. Muller (Yes, that HJ Muller) in his first address, in 1949, published in the aforementioned AJHG, wrote about “Our Load of Mutations.” The whole thing is relevant (for reasons the reader may not understand), but gets interesting at the section “The penalty for relaxing natural selection” (pg 34 of the pdf). Yes, that natural selection. (SCIENCE!) Then comes to a head in the section called “The avoidance of the penalty.” (pg 40 of the pdf) Muller writes:
In order to fulfill the aim of achieving a form of selection more humane than that resulting from the unalloyed struggle for existence, it would of course be all-important for this purposive control to be carried out, not by means of decrees and orders from authorities, but through the freely exercised volition of the individuals concerned, guided by their recognition of the situation and motivated by their own desire to contribute to human benefit in the ways most effective for them. This is the only real solution, the only procedure consistent with human happiness, dignity, and security. … But for voluntary adoption by people in general of a course of such wisdom, and so different from that now followed, a deep-seated change in mores would be necessary. Not least among the requirements for this would be a far more thoroughgoing and widespread education of the public in biological and social essentials.
For Iceland to have reached near 100% elimination of defectives, “a deep-seated change in mores” has surely occurred. (The article says 67% for America; it is probably much higher, as real records, rather than estimates, are hard to come by.) But to see the defense of Iceland’s program in American lips, it is evident that the “deep-seated change in mores” has been brought about in America, too.
The purpose of Muller’s work is not to dwell on the actual mechanisms of bringing about that change in mores, but does have an opinion. He says, for example,
…we must recognize that such far reaching changes in attitudes and practices as are called for in this field will not develop of themselves. It is the responsibility of those who already have knowledge of the genetic facts to be prime movers in driving home an adequate realization of them among both the lay and medical public, and among all groups concerned with social matters, until appropriate changes are adopted in their daily practices and precepts.
Muller’s purpose is to establish the grave consequences, as he sees it, for not acting. The third president, University of Michigan geneticist, Lee Dice, spends a bit more time on it in his annual address to the ASHG, in 1951, titled “Heredity Clinics: Their Value for Public Service and for Research.”
The danger of deterioration of the world’s stock of human genes through the accumulation of harmful mutations was forcefully pointed out at the 1949 annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics by our president for that year, H.J. Muller (1950). The harmful mutations that occur in primitive human populations may be assumed usually to be eliminated in time by natural selection. In modern societies, however….
You can see where this is going.
One method for preventing the transmission of a harmful trait is to destroy those individuals who exhibit the trait. This drastic method was in fact employed by the rulers of Nazi Germany, but is utterly repugnant to most persons.
Repugnant then, in 1951, but not so repugnant before the Nazis had done their worst, as suggested by the advocates mentioned in this essay (Berry, Dight, Lydston, etc). He continues:
Only two practical ways seem to be available for eliminating harmful genes from a modern human population. Either those persons who carry hereditary defects may be segregated or sterilized by the state, or they may voluntarily refrain from reproduction.
After weighing these options, he settles on the ‘voluntary’ approach. Not to dwell on it too much, because you can read it and investigate for yourself, but he is an example of what I meant when I said that the genetic counselors have the ability to influence a parent’s ‘voluntary’ choice by how the situation is framed:
From my experience in giving advice about heredity to families in all walks of life I can affirm that every parent desires his children to be free from serious handicaps and to be physically and mentally well endowed. If there is known to be high probability of transmitting a serious defect, it would be an abnormal person indeed who would not refrain from having children.
Or aborting the children; remember, in 1951, abortion was only allowed on a state by state basis. Roe vs. Wade was yet to come.
The strategy by which one convinces a population to implement eugenic principles without knowing they are doing so, and thinking it was one’s own idea all along, was outlined more deliberately by the president of the American Eugenics Society, Frederick Osborn, in 1956:
People will accept the idea of a specific hereditary defect. They will go to a heredity clinic and ask what is the risk of our having a defective child. They balance that risk against the chance of their having a sound child, and they usually come up with a pretty sound decision. But they won’t accept the idea that they are in general second rate. We must rely on other motivation.
Given the right circumstances, people will have children in proportion to their ability to care for them. If they feel financially secure, if they enjoy accepting responsibility, if they have warm affectional responses, if they are physically strong and competent, they are likely to have large families, provided they have a reasonable psychological conditioning to this end. If they are unable to feed the children they have, if they are afraid of responsibility, if their affectional responses are weak, people don’t want many children. If they have effective means of family planning, they won’t have many. Our studies have shown this to be true all over the world. On such a base it is surely possible to build a system of voluntary unconscious selection. But the reasons advanced must be generally acceptable reasons. Let’s stop telling anyone that they have a generally inferior genetic quality, for they will never agree. Let’s base our proposals on the desirability of having children born in homes where they will get affectionate and responsible care, and perhaps our proposals will be accepted.
Let me unpack what he is saying for you:
The more outspoken approach of actually singling out populations as defective in a society like America, coming out of the ashes of Nazi Germany, isn’t going to work. How best to achieve virtually the same aims, of a genetically ‘perfect’ human race? You get the parents to think they’ve come up with the idea all on their own: voluntary unconscious selection. By ‘selection’, yes, that selection, ie, Darwinian selection. Voluntary–because people are making a choice, unconscious–because they are acting on Darwinian principles without knowing they are doing so.
Osborn understands that this will fly in the face of the sensibilities of his allies:
My own feeling is that if eugenics is to make progress in the foreseeable future, we will not only have to drop the idea of assigning genetic superiorities to social or racial groups, but we will even have to stop trying to designate individuals as superior or inferior. To many eugenists this would seem a radical step, almost the abandonment of eugenics. But a little consideration will show that there are means of selection which do not require that we humiliate one half of the individuals who comprise the human race by telling them that they are not as fit as the other half to procreate the next generation.
His solution was to advance eugenics ideas on ‘generally acceptable reasons,’ ie, not by highlighting inferior genetic quality, but by focusing on “reasonable psychological conditioning”, so that they will achieve the same ends. He, or they, appear to have been right. But, importantly, the idea of ‘assigning superiorities to social or racial groups’ is not dropped as a matter of substance. Ie, they all still believe that certain races… ahem… such as black people… are racially inferior, or that certain people are genetically inferior (eg, those who will bear defective children) but because tactically, in the present circumstances found in the United States, they will never achieve their aims. And its the ‘aims’ that matter.
And so, the heredity clinics eventually morphed into the field of genetic counseling, guided by founding principles and individuals who shared 100% the goals of the Nazis, and for often the same reasons, but had to change their tactics if they wanted to achieve the same ends.* [See important caveat at end of this essay.]
They really did have the same goals and aims. They only differed on their assessment on which populations were genetically inferior, and, naturally, were horrified by the Nazi’s mechanisms, especially since many of these German advocates for eugenics, like Franz Kallmann, were Jews themselves.
Kallmann had also called for the destruction of defectives, and even worked with Ernst Rudin the one who helped supply the scientific basis for the aforementioned German law against hereditary diseases. However, as a Jew he was forced to flee Germany when the scientific assessment there was that Jews themselves were defectives. How is that for gratitude? In America, he joined his fellow eugenicists by helping to found organizations like the ASHG. American advocates for eugenics would find many new places to advance their agenda, often doing so under the guise of ‘public health.’
(Another irony: Alfred Hoche, author of the aforementioned “Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life,” had one of his own relatives scooped up by Nazis employing the rationale he had himself helped establish as ‘scientific’ and ethical.)
The idea that our contemporary destruction of ‘defective’ children while in the womb is utterly distinct from the Nazi ideology is completely unhistorical, for the simple reason that the Nazis merely borrowed what was already in mainstream circulation by numerous scholars, scientists, and researchers both inside and outside of Germany.
Which brings us, I think, to the question: “What kind of society do you want to live in?”
If it was one that was devoid of any Nazi heritage, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not the society you live in–and the white supremacists are not the main examples. These are a small slice of a small slice of America’s population.
In the immortal words of Frederick Osborn, “Birth control and abortion are turning out to be great eugenic advances of our time. If they had been advanced for eugenic reasons it would have retarded or stopped their acceptance.”
But that they were accepted by the general public is a simple historical fact. That they are accepted still, is likewise a fact. Don’t like it? Time to start thinking for yourself, my friend. Do not any longer let yourself be victims of those seeking ‘voluntary, unconscious’ acceptance of their ideas.
** Caveat: ironically, Roe vs. Wade was decided on the grounds of a woman’s privacy. This threw a wrench in the plan, and in America at least, genetic counseling became infused with a strong current for ‘non-directive’ genetic counseling. This has probably spared us a great deal of agony, as if Roe vs. Wade had been decided in favor of abortion, but on the basis of ‘public health,’ who knows what levels of compulsion we might have descended into. Not that the abortion of some 60 million people is something of no consequence, but in light of the measures being promoted by other advocates of eugenics that had currency in the 1970s (eg, the ‘over-population crisis’, which Roe vs. Wade actually alludes to), we could have seen in America the same horrors that were seen in Germany. But there are people pushing back against non-directive counseling, even to this day. For example, the liberal authors of From Chance to Choice: Genetics & Justice seem to think the days of non-directive counseling need to disappear, and this, its worth saying, after they offer a very sober and accurate description of the history of eugenics as it relates to the question. Their approach is typical of progressive-speech: it is not eugenics, it is genetic justice…