April 29, 2005

Is Eugenics Obsolete?

Pam Spaulding has a gruesome post on the history of forced sterilization in America that's very much worth reading. Though it might be a little unfair for her to imply that the "American Taliban," i.e. the pro-life right was behind this movement. After all, the infamously pro-eugenics Buck v. Bell decision that Pam quotes was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a lifelong atheist. And as the wingnuts never tire of pointing out, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was one of the biggest proponents of forced sterilization, arguing in the 1920s that "the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective."

Like it or not, it was the secular elites of that era who were largely touting sterilization, worried as they were that the educated class wasn't self-reproducing enough. On the other side of the ledger was Theodore Roosevelt, who promoted "positive eugenics," i.e. exhorting educated women to start cranking out more babies. (He even included this his 1906 SOTU address.) The David Brooks of his time, you could say.

Now in The Empty Cradle, Phillip Longman worried that subreplacement fertility rates among the educated classes could mean "the social seeds for eugenics are still alive" (presumably through genetic engineering). Fortunately, though, I don't think the modern political climate is at all favorable to this sort of thing. Conservatives are so committed to the "culture of life" that it would be nigh-unthinkable for them to promote any sort of eugenics program. Right-wing intellectuals worried about either cultural decline or falling birthrates (the two main rationales for eugenics) tend to fall into two camps: the Sam Huntington-types who want to limit immigration to preserve Anglo-Saxon Protestant purity here in America; and the David Brooks-set, who just want women to return to the hearth and pump out lots and lots of babies. On the left, there's the Longman camp, which thinks the answer is to craft policies that allow women to work and have as many kids as they want; along with a growing liberal disability-rights movement, whose aims, I think, were nicely summarized in this wonderful essay by Michael Berube:
I criticized the high abortion rate for fetuses with Down syndrome, but unlike those who rely on various invocations of divine authority to dictate the terms of life to others, I would rather decrease the abortion rate by means of persuasion than by means of state coercion.
At any rate, this is all by way of saying that eugenics movements are on much weaker grounds today than ever before, and not just because they were so thoroughly discredited after the horrors of Nazi population programs, but because there simply aren't any major political movements thinking even remotely along those lines. The proposed solutions to cultural decline or falling birthrates or defective births have mostly been staked out elsewhere.
-- Brad Plumer 3:55 AM || ||