Today, when we think of eugenics, our thoughts most likely turn to mid-twentieth century Germany and Nazi efforts to create a “pure race” by eliminating those considered unworthy of contributing to the chain of heredity.
What many may not know, however, is that the eugenics movement was well established in the United States before it spread to Germany. In fact, the Rockefeller and Carnegie families helped develop and fund the German eugenics programs including the one in which the notorious Josef Mengele was employed before being assigned to Auschwitz.
While the Nazis force-sterilized some 400,000 individuals deemed to be feeble-minded, degenerate, dissident or, in some other way, unfit to continue the line, beginning in the early 1900s and continuing for decades past World War II, more than 60,000 Americans were sterilized, against their will, as part of a eugenics movement aimed at “improving” the human race by eliminating “defectives” from the gene pool.
The world has never had a problem producing plenty of people who consider themselves more valuable than others based on education, social status, age, race, country of origin, physical and mental abilities, and other factors. “Eugenics,” the term that informs some our discussion of this kind of thinking today, was coined in 1869 by British scientist Sir Francis Galton. The movement, sparked by the concept, was fueled by Social Darwinism, and popularized by publications such as 1910’s Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding by C.B. Davenport. As eugenics originated in a time when decency and morality as well as promiscuity and criminality were considered hereditary, two tracks were laid: “positive eugenics,” that encourages the “genetically superior” to breed, and “negative eugenics” that works to prevent the “genetically inferior” from reproducing.
I’ve never recovered from the horror I felt when I read Buck v. Bell (1927) in a Civil Liberties class in college. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buck decision, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the court ruled that a state statute permitting compulsory sterilization of the “feeble-minded” and “socially inadequate” for the protection and health of the state did not violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Etched deeply in my mind is the line that concluded Holmes’ argument: “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” The Buck decision, which tested the validity of a Virginia law allowing eugenical sterilization, was largely seen as an endorsement of the practice and it paved the road for the tens of thousands of operations that were subsequently performed. In my estimation, this SCOTUS decision ranks with Roe v. Wade (1973) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) as among the most heinous ever handed down by the court.
In 1924 Carrie Buck—involuntarily institutionalized by the State of Virginia after she was raped and impregnated—challenged the state’s plan to sterilize her. Having already judged her mentally deficient, Virginia wanted to make Buck the first person sterilized under a new law designed to prevent hereditarily “defective” people from reproducing.
In Paul Lombardo’s book, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell, the author demonstrates that neither Buck nor her mother and daughter were the “imbeciles” condemned in the Holmes opinion. Lombardo insists the cards were stacked against Buck before she even stepped into the courtroom and the state of Virginia had her sterilized shortly after the 1927 decision.
The Buck decision was cited at the Nuremberg trials in defense of Nazi sterilization experiments; it has never been overturned.
Indiana was the first of 32 states that passed laws allowing authorities to order sterilization. Some states limited sterilization to inmates and institutionalized patients but others, including North Carolina, went further, allowing individuals within a community – often social workers – to petition the state to have a person sterilized.
On July 24, North Carolina adopted a budget that includes $10 million to compensate victims who were forced to undergo this procedure. It’s believed that 1,110 men and 6,418 women were sterilized in the state from 1929 to 1974. The amount paid out will depend on how many individuals step forward; it’s estimated the number surviving today is about 2,900. A state task force has been charged with making a recommendation on compensation: $20,000 per person has been suggested.
Elaine Riddick, one of the state’s most vocal victims of forced sterilization, said (in a report published by the BBC), that in 1968 she was raped by a neighbor who had threatened to kill her if she revealed what he had done. “She was 13,” the BBC reports, and “the daughter of violent and abusive parents in the desperately poor country town of Winfall [North Carolina] . . . While she was in the hospital giving birth, the state violated her a second time, she says. A social worker who had deemed her ‘feeble-minded,’ petitioned the state Eugenics Board to have her sterilised. Officials coerced her illiterate grandmother into signing an ‘x’ on an authorisation form. After performing a Caesarean section, doctors sterilised her ‘just like cutting a hog,’ she says. ‘They killed my kids . . . They killed mine before they got to me.’”
Official eugenics programs in the United States ended in 1979 but now The Sacramento Bee is reporting that, from 2006 to 2010, nearly 150 female inmates in California may have been sterilized and without required state approvals.
According to the Bee: “At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years—and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s . . . Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future . . . The allegations echo those made nearly a half-century ago, when forced sterilizations of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor were commonplace in California. [California was a leader in the eugenics movement, responsible for a third of all sterilizations nationwide.] State lawmakers officially banned such practices in 1979.”
The Sacramento Bee reports that the OB-GYN who worked at one of the correctional facilities has denied pressuring anyone. Instead, he insists he: “offered tubal ligations only to pregnant inmates with a history of at least three C-sections” for whom additional pregnancies could pose a danger.
More and more commentators are raising the alarm about the continuing force of eugenics but no discussion of this practice can really be broached today without touching upon the international, interdisciplinary transhumanism movement (H+) that has as its goal the fundamental transformation of human beings beyond their current physical and mental limitations. It is the next step in the drive towards engineering perfection.
In an article by Kevin Roeten that posted today on the Capitol Hill Outsider (http://capitolhilloutsider.com/re-emergence-of-eugenics/), the writer argues that, under Obama’s administration, eugenic methods that breach moral ethics are on the rise. Roeten also cites the number killed because of the Roe v. Wade decision and, in that context quotes Justice Ruth Ginsberg who, in recently stating her belief about abortions, said: “Frankly I had thought that, at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” And, yes, Roeten asserts, she was directly referring to eugenics.
Geoffrey Miller, on the Edge.org (http://edge.org/responses/q2013), says, “China has been running the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China’s ever-faster rise as the global superpower. With the 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law (known as the Eugenic Law until Western opposition forced a name change), China forbade people carrying heritable mental or physical disorders from marrying, and promoted mass prenatal ultrasound testing for birth defects. Deng [Xiaoping] also encouraged assortative mating through promoting urbanization and higher education, so bright, hard-working young people could meet each other more easily, increasing the proportion of children who would be at the upper extremes of intelligence and conscientiousness.
“Chinese biopower has ancient roots in the concept of ‘yousheng’ (‘good birth’—which has the same literal meaning as ‘eugenics’). For a thousand years, China has been ruled by a cognitive meritocracy selected through the highly competitive imperial exams. The brightest young men became the scholar-officials who ruled the masses, amassed wealth, attracted multiple wives, and had more children. Chinese eugenics will quickly become even more effective, given its massive investment in genomic research on human mental and physical traits. BGI-Shenzhen employs more than 4,000 researchers. It has far more ‘next-generation’ DNA sequencers that anywhere else in the world, and is sequencing more than 50,000 genomes per year.”
Sex-selective abortion is worsening sex ratios in countries such as India and China (where males are preferred to females) and one wonders how many females are not being brought to term in the U.S. because parents in this country, as well, would prefer to have males. In May of this year, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would be filing suit against Arizona’s law (passed in 2011) that bans abortions based on gender preference or race. The Arizona law is the only state law in the nation that bans race-based abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks U.S. abortion laws. Three other states, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma, ban sex-based abortions. North Dakota and Kansas enacted sex-based abortion bans this year, but they’re not yet in force. The North Dakota law also bans abortions because the fetus has a birth defect. Today, it is estimated that 91-93 percent of pregnancies in Europe with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome are terminated; in the U.S., termination rates have been estimated at between 87 to 95 percent.
USA Today’s editorial board voiced their objection to Texas’ new anti-abortion law arguing that it will make it difficult for people to abort babies with Down Syndrome. “While some genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome, can be detected with amniocentesis at 16 to 22 weeks, even then it can take two weeks to get results,” they write. ”Add specialists, research and time to reflect, and a 20-week ban forces women and couples to make heart-rending decisions against a ticking clock.” Never mind that the child in the womb can feel pain at this age and, as Roeten notes, are killed with the most barbaric of methods: “instruments/substances for dismemberment, disembowelment, decapitation, and poisoning and/or burning a developing baby to death.”
This, in my opinion, is institutionalized murder and it brings to my mind the quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal that others.” The privileged, the powerful, the elite “some” have used the tools of sterilization and abortion to eliminate those they deem unworthy of life. Now the privileged, the powerful, the elite “some” have the tools to engineer what they believe will be a perfect human race. Science fiction often presages science fact and movies like Gattaca and Elysium may be providing us with previews of the dystopian worlds the powerful may impose upon the not so powerful underclasses.
What is perfection? What would constitute a perfect life? A perfect person? A perfect society? A perfect world?
Would we be better off with recalibrated pleasure centers designed to ensure lifelong emotional “well-being”? Would personality pills instill in our spirits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Would uploading our minds into machines—a process that is predicated on the belief that there is no immaterial soul (we are only our biological wiring)—make us happy?
It’s hard to argue against gene therapy that could eliminate disease, replacing “bad genes” with “good genes,” and I imagine there are loads of folks who would love to have their inner RNA codes reset for slimness and longevity. People are already benefiting from cybernetics with cyborg upgrades enhancing hearing and vision. And, I have to admit, it might be quite a hoot to have retractable wings. But what will it take to reach the transhumanist ideal of perfection? What will it cost us?
Religion is viewed by some transhumanist philosophers as entropic, dangerous, irrational, and a barrier to progress. Max More, for example, specifically speaks of the “Christian notion of salvation by the act of Jesus, rather than through our own restitution for wrongs and our own self-transformation” as resulting in “moral hazard.” He sees an “urgency” in replacing religions with other types of “meaning-fostering” systems. His choice: the “dynamic optimism” of “extropic transhumanism.”
“God,” he concludes, “was a primitive notion invented by primitive people, people only just beginning to step out of ignorance and unconsciousness. God was an oppressive concept, a more powerful being than we, but made in the image of our crude self-conceptions. Our own process of endless expansion into higher forms should and will replace this religious idea. As extropians pursuing and promoting transcendent expansion we are the vanguard of evolution. Humanity is a temporary stage along the evolutionary pathway. We are not the zenith of nature’s development. It is time for us to consciously take charge of ourselves and to accelerate our progress. No more gods, no more faith, no more timid holding back. Let us blast out of our old forms, our ignorance, our weakness, and our mortality. The future is ours.”
Again, I must say I do wonder how extropians might pursue their ideal. How might they be working, even now, to remove that which they deem impediments to their ideal? Will they, in the pursuit of “perfection”—in the pursuit of racial purity, in the drive to drive out religion—attempt to exterminate those whose genetic stock or whose faith in the Other does not fit their ne plus ultra? Your thoughts?
Philanthropy Roundtable – Philanthropy’s Shame: http://www.philanthropyroundtable.org/site/print/philanthropys_shame
BBC News – Sterilisation: North Carolina grapples with legacy: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13700490
The Sacramento Bee – Female inmates sterilized in California prison without approval: http://www.sacbee.com/2013/07/07/5549696/female-inmates-sterilized-in-california.html
Transhumanism: Towards a Futurist Philosophy: http://www.maxmore.com/transhum.htm
3 thoughts on “Eugenics and Extropic Transhumanism: “Perfection” at What Cost?”
Wouldn’t it be odd if in the human’s attempt to create the perfect human that the unusual gift of “creativity” were to die out.
You may be interested in my “On the Square” article on the First Things web site at http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/07/why-im-disappointed-by-the-texas-abortion-law
Thank you, Gregory, for providing the link to your article. Thank you also for sharing your own pain and sorrow as it informs this discussion.