Politics & Policy

Remember Then, Now

What the eugenics movement can teach us about today's stem-cell debates.

Praise for the forward march of science; progressive and liberal leaders championing new scientific techniques that promise to cure disease, eradicate illness and suffering, and advance the progress of the human race; elite institutions of higher education embarking on their own initiatives, training students, and supporting researchers in the new science; California’s self-described progressive citizenry passing a law granting state funding and support to the cause, with other states preparing to follow suit; the intellectual elite of the country decrying the obstructionist, anti-modern views of the people who oppose or publicly challenge the underlying ethical rationale of the new science.

This might sound like our contemporary debate over embryonic stem cells, but it’s actually an apt description of the eugenics movement in the United States in the early 20th century. Eugenics, a term coined by British scientist Francis Galton in 1883, was the movement to “improve the human race through better breeding,” and in the first few decades of the early 20th century in the United States it found a ready and eager audience. California and many other states passed compulsory eugenic sterilization laws that led to the sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans. Congress passed an Immigration Restriction Act in 1924 based on the testimony of eugenicists and fears about the fitness of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. And the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1927, upheld the sterilization of a supposedly “feebleminded” woman as constitutional, with progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declaring, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Underwritten by the wealth of some of the country’s most prestigious families, such as the Carnegies and the Harrimans, eugenics was something every enlightened American believed in, since the movement promised to end needless suffering, increase economic prospects by alleviating the burden placed on the state by the feebleminded and their many illnesses, and generally improve health and well-being for all citizens. Eugenics was the future.

Although there are vast differences between the eugenics movement of the past and the stem-cell research of the present, there is an eerie similarity to their rhetoric and tactics. Like eugenics, promoters of embryonic-stem-cell research talk of its endless promise, declaring it the scientific “path to the future,” as two state senators from Massachusetts wrote in a recent opinion piece. Embryonic-stem-cell promoters claim that their science will lead to cures for a range of diseases and the alleviation of much human suffering. And they denounce those who question the ethics of their pursuit as backward or blindly religious. But as we continue to debate the ethics of embryonic-stem-cell research, it is worth recalling that movements waged in the name of scientific progress often leave a troubled legacy.

The current debate over stem-cell research in Massachusetts provides an intriguing example of embryonic-stem-cell supporters’ rhetoric at work. Governor Mitt Romney, whose wife has multiple sclerosis, has been taking a drubbing recently for his position on stem-cell research: He supports the research on lines drawn from discarded embryos from fertility clinics but not the creation of human embryos through cloning for the purpose of research. Two Massachusetts state senators, Robert E. Travaglini and Cynthia Stone Creem, countered in a recent Boston Globe essay that such opposition actively harms the search for cures. “Today,” they wrote, “children with juvenile diabetes or crippling spinal cord injuries hope that stem-cell research may someday offer them a cure. We cannot let their hope be taken hostage by ignorance, misinformation, or political posturing.”

Similarly, during our most recent election, when President Bush expressed qualms about embryonic-stem-cell research, or when the likes of as Mel Gibson spoke openly of their opposition to California’s stem-cell initiative (Proposition 71), they were ridiculed as ignorant theocrats. In one particularly overheated expression, Neal Gabler of the Norman Lear Center, writing in the Los Angeles Times, declared that people who support a conservative social agenda and oppose abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research, and gay marriage are undemocratic boosters of “government by jihadis in the grip of unshakable self-righteousness.” Sam Harris, also writing in the Times, chimed in with the claim that “our president and our leaders in Congress, many of them citing religious teachings, have decided to put the rights of undifferentiated cells before those of men and women suffering from spinal cord injuries, full-body burns, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.”

During the height of the eugenics movement, similar charges were leveled at opponents. It was Catholics and conservative Protestants, often at the local level, who fought state legislative initiatives for compulsory eugenic sterilization and opposed eugenic restrictions on marriage licenses and immigration law. In New Orleans, Catholics formed a coalition with fundamentalist Protestants to thwart legislators’ attempts to pass a compulsory-sterilization law. Catholics and conservative Protestants, ridiculed as backward and anti-scientific in their own day, seem prescient in ours.

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, Harvard University, which is embarking on its own private stem-cell initiative this year, has its own connection to the history of eugenics. Charles Davenport, the head of the Eugenics Record Office and one of the country’s leading eugenicists, received his training as a biologist at Harvard. The school offered courses in eugenics to undergraduates in the 1910s and 1920s, as did Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Northwestern, and Clark Universities. Professor E. A. Hooton, an anthropologist at Harvard, was an avid eugenicist, supporting compulsory sterilization and other eugenic proposals right into the mid-1940s. Many Harvard geneticists, like Edward M. East, also publicly supported eugenics in the 1910s and 1920s. Ironically, at the height of the eugenics craze, Harvard refused a large donation earmarked for the promotion of eugenics research. In 1927, it turned down a $60,000 bequest to establish a separate program to study eugenics because it didn’t want to be seen as supporting compulsory sterilization, despite the fact that many Harvard faculty members were arguing vigorously for just that in the pages of Eugenical News and The Journal of Heredity. Today, Harvard plans to spend $100 million on stem-cell research.

Our current debate over stem-cell research remains in many ways as badly constructed as those eugenics debates of last century: pitched warfare between progress and fear, reason and religion. As the results in California’s Prop 71 decision reveal, stem-cell advocates have been very effective in seizing the moral high ground by arguing that empathy for the sick and the need for unfettered scientific progress trumps other objections. These have long been successful rhetorical tools for swaying public opinion; eugenicists used them to great advantage. But whether you support or oppose embryonic-stem-cell research, it is not unreasonable to suggest, given the very strong feelings on both sides, that we should continue to have a careful and thorough debate about the ethics of it. This is not quashing science; it is the beginning of a necessary discussion about its uses and limits.

Today we have many more protections for individuals in place, ethically, legally, and culturally, than we did in the era of eugenics. And Americans are loath to draw comparisons between the darker chapters of our history and the present, despite our near-ignorance of movements like eugenics. So forgotten is our history of eugenics that in a January opinion piece in the New York Times, Susan Jacoby argued that contemporary debates between religion and science could easily be harmonized if we only followed the examples of liberal Christians in the past, enthusiastically citing the zoologist Maynard Metcalf as her example. It is true that Metcalf reconciled his liberal Christianity with evolution, but Jacoby failed to disclose that his faith was also broad enough to encourage an avid embrace of eugenics. In an article titled “Evolution and Man,” in the August 1916 issue of the Journal of Heredity, Metcalf argued that the success of eugenics depended upon the success of Christian civilization, because only Christian societies could properly foster eugenic ideals.

It is perhaps a useful reminder, as we confront the serious ethical challenges produced by our rapid technological and scientific progress, that we’ve faced such difficult situations before. Then, like now, the proponents of the new science framed the debate as one between enlightened scientific progress and the forces of ignorance and religious zealotry. In the past we didn’t make the correct choice. Today, it would be helpful to reframe the debate as one about the limits and ethics of science more broadly, not as a battle between reason and faith. Should we do things merely because we can? How much of a voice should citizens concerned about the ethics of science have in these debates? And how can we craft a more permanent compromise on stem-cell research–one that will not entirely thwart science but offers sound ethical protections for human life? These are the questions we should be asking. If we do, we might be judged better by our own children and grandchildren than we now judge our ancestors who so enthusiastically embraced eugenics.

Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2004.

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