Re: Eugenics, They Cried

by Jonah Goldberg

From a reader:

I’m sorry, but an intervention is needed — you are spouting relativism with
your “Eugenics, They Cried” post, saying it all depends on your viewpoint
whether an act is a form of eugenics.

Quoth the relativist: “If all eugenics means is “good birth” or “well born”
—  which was Francis Galton’s definition — then women who take prenatal
vitamins, play music to their fetuses and — yes — women who screen for
genetic abnormalities all subscribe to eugenics to one extent or another.”

The American Heritage Dictionary provides a definition of eugenics: “The
study of or belief in the hereditary improvement of the human race by
controlled selective breeding.” This definition is in line with Galton’s
interest in genetics. Darwin’s half-cousin wasn’t interested in improving
fetuses through vitamins, etc, but in building a better fetus through good
breeding.

I think you can take a wide view of “selective breeding” to include the
killing of unborn human beings who have unfavorable genes (often based on
the results of genetic testing). While a more horrible act, it shares the
same motivation as stopping someone who carries unfavorable genes from
breeding — and it is legal. However, I wouldn’t bother to call it
“eugenics”, although it is that. I would call it “killing an innocent life”
or “manslaughter”.

Doing things to improve the health of your unborn child, like taking
vitamins, eating salmon, and playing Mozart, does not fall under this
definition. These acts have nothing to do with preventing or ending the
lives of those with certain genes.

Me: I actually agree with a lot of this. But I think the reader missed my basic point, which was not a relativist one at all. I was referring to how various factions within the political culture will use the word eugenics to advance various agendas. As for the thing itself, by whatever name we call it, the story and issues get more complicated.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading about eugenics in the last couple years and I think it’s worth noting there were many different kinds of eugenicists (though I’m not a fan of any of them). Not all of them favored  abortion — Margaret Sanger didn’t and she was a hardcore eugenicist. Many eugenicists believed that simply improving nutrition, hygiene, medicine and economic arrangements would improve the race (there were some Lamarckians in the mix I should add). This was not as “nice” as it sounds when you read how some of these theories would be put into practice. But you can wait for my book for more on that.

The point of retail eugenics is that it is exactly that retail, catered to the desires of an individual parent. There would still be serious effects on the human race, even though there would be no grand statist agenda behind it. I was not endorsing — or intending to endorse — any specific measure or intent.  I certainly agree that there is more than whiff of hard eugenic thought to the pro-abortion camp, even if it isn’t discussed openly very often see Freakanomics or, better, the portion of Ramesh’s book that discusses it.   But my point stands, people will  call eugenic practices they approve of all sorts of things. But they’ll call the bad stuff  “eugenics.”

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