An article I read today announces that they have found a way to test for 3,500 genetic faults, raising concerns (the article says) about the ethical implications. The story veers headlong into a sustained bout of research that I am currently engaged in, research that began by wanting to answer the basic question “how does a society come to a point where 70-90% of all children diagnosed with a birth defect are aborted?” This is born of my own experience, when my wife and I, told that our daughter had spina bifida, were offered the ‘choice’ to ‘terminate.’ (My story). Of late, I have been compiling my research results, and one place I have been sharing it is an online course which you can learn more about here.
The answer is simple and complicated all at the same time. It begins with the Enlightenment era and the wholesale rejection of God and the consequent conclusion that it is Man’s job to decide what is real and what has value. It was not long before Man was taking into his own hands the calculation of the value of other Men. Starting with Malthus, running through Darwin, and culminating in Hitler, from seed to bitter fruit took a mere 150 years. The people who spoke openly about removing the unfit from society in 1943 did not jettison their beliefs in 1944, when it was clear to the world what had happened.
They were as horrified as anyone else, but it did not occur to them that they had gone wrong from their first principles. So, they regrouped. They plotted. They tried to learn from their mistakes, in the sense that they thought they could do right what the eugenicists in the 20s-40s did wrong. But you can only learn from your mistakes when you know what they are, and these men and women didn’t have a clue.
Reading the comments on this article, it is clear that people still haven’t a clue. One of my favorites was the one who said:
people should group according to their beliefs. That way those who believe in the soul, life after death (heaven) and that babies with debilitating and painful conditions should be allowed to be born and even forceably kept alive can all live in their “hell on Earth”, ruled by Satan and looking forward to their “second life” next to Him.
Those who do not subscribe to the above can live life according to science and philosophy with no recourse to monotheism and arbitrary rules written in old books.
Spoken like a true Nazi, or any scientist and progressive prior to 1944.
This faith in ‘science and philosophy with no recourse to monotheism and arbitrary rules written in old books’ permeated the thinking of the intellectual elite before the holocaust, but it did not, as I said, go away.
In regrouping, a certain Frederick Osborn, in a 1956 speech recorded in the Eugenics Review, said:
It is eighty-six years since Galton published his Hereditary Genius, eighty-six years since he gave us the hope that the average of human intelligence and character could be raised to the level of the upper five or ten per cent to-day; since he envisaged the eugenic movement as something that would sweep the world and make man at last the master of his own destiny on earth.
This is Man taking his evolution into his own hands. Evolution is science, understand. One must live according to science. But it did not work out:
The eugenic movement is nothing but a few small handfuls of men in various countries; here in England, in the United States, in India, in France. They are not influencing public opinion. The very word eugenics is in disrepute in some quarters. Yet I still believe in Galton’s dream. Probably most of you do. We must ask ourselves, what have we done wrong?
His answer is telling, and speaks to the answer to the question I began my research with:
I think we have failed to take into account a trait which is almost universal and is very deep in human nature. People simply are not willing to accept the idea that the genetic base on which their character is formed is inferior and should not be repeated in the next generation. We have asked whole groups of people to accept this idea and we have asked individuals to accept it. They have constantly refused, and we have all but killed the eugenic movement.
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.
It seems to me that if it is to progress as it should, eugenics must follow new policies and state its case anew, and that from this rebirth we may, even in our own lifetime, see it moving at last towards the high goals which Galton set for it.
I have bolded a few points that I think the intelligent reader will instantly understand the significance of.
Osborn proposed the establishment of ‘heredity clinics.’ He wanted genetic counselors working together with hospitals and marriage counseling services to educate people about how they may harm the race if they are not careful. There was one large problem that faced Osborn and eugenicists of the 1950s: a poor grasp of the real facts. He says:
Until the science of human genetics is very much advanced it is the only kind of broad, overall selection we can work for. If we can succeed in giving direction to the social forces which will effect this kind of environmental selection, we will be better equipped to direct them to a specifically genetic selection as soon as the necessary genetic information is available.
In other words, it was too difficult based on knowledge had at the time to implement eugenics on the individual level, but by ‘giving direction’ to ‘social courses’ they can be prepared to direct people in the ‘right’ direction as soon as that information was available.
The great misstep of the pre-war eugenicists was the involuntary nature of many of the measures taken. Forced sterilizations and worse were common. But how to ensure the human species maintained genetic fitness on a voluntary basis? You would need to create a system of voluntary unconscious selection. In other words, you would need to get people to a point where they voluntarily make decisions based on selection principles that they were themselves completely unconscious of. To put it another way: the goal was to get people to weed out the unfit without knowing that this was what they were doing. In short: trick people into thinking that their ‘selecting’ was their own idea.
If you think that someone like Osborn wouldn’t know where to begin in implementing such a vision, think again. Osborn was essentially one of our top propagandists in the US military during WW2.
Tests such as the one described in the news article above obviously falls into the category of an advancement in our knowledge of human genetics. And it just so happens, there are today multitudes of genetic counselors ready to help people as they make their ‘own’ choice.
Where did these genetic counselors come from?
This link provides an interesting and seemingly innocent, and even heroic, description of the history of genetic counseling in the United States:
Sheldon C. Reed PhD coined the term “genetic counseling” soon after he joined the Dight Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. The Dight Institute had in its mission to provide courses and public lectures about human genetics, to participate in research, and to be available for consultation about questions related to human genetics. In the years that Dr. Reed was at the Dight Institute it is estimated that he responded to over 4,000 such questions.
But are we not interested to know who Sheldon Reed is? And just what is the Dight Institute?
Charles Fremont Dight was the founder of the Minnesota Eugenics Society who wrote to Hitler, praising him for his “plan to stamp out mental inferiority among the German people.” Dight’s efforts and estate would lead to the founding of the Dight Institute, and you can begin to guess what its guiding principles were.
Tracking the rise of genetic counseling as a reputable field that provides a valuable public service is a fascinating endeavor. Quite interestingly, all of the forerunners of genetic counseling in the United States were near-rabid racist eugenicists, recoiling from the shock of their ideas implemented in the Holocaust. They founded organizations and degree programs at colleges and universities in the furtherance of their causes, and to read the promotional material for those organizations and programs, one struggles to find anything negative to say about them. They seem so noble, and nobly described.
But if you want to know how it is that a society comes to abort 70-90% of all children diagnosed with a birth defect, I think you guess how it all played out. Today’s genetic counselors are typically very sincere individuals who themselves haven’t any idea that they are fulfilling the eugenic vision of people like Frederick Osborn, Charles Dight, or Sheldon Reed, to name a few. Which just goes to show you that the prospective parents aren’t the only ones goaded into ‘voluntary unconscious selection.’ Today’s counselors are unconsciously furthering a eugenics agenda that was re-oriented and launched 60 years ago.
Ethical implications of a test that can identify 3,500 genetic ‘faults’? That’s putting it mildly.
Judging from the article, these ‘faults’ (I don’t know why they are not thought of as conceivably being evolutionary advances) are not even necessarily expected to be expressed in the offspring. But the despair that parents might endure after hearing their child has a birth defect is now multiplied in thousands of new directions. By a clever sleight of hand that began waving half a century ago, the agonizing decision on whether or not one ought to kill the newborn to spare the child, the parents, and society the suffering the ‘defect’ might have falls on the parents themselves, instead of the doctors, who until the Holocaust had reserved to themselves the right to make such decisions.
And that, if you ask me, is unconscionable.