The New Eugenics: It Used to Be Forced Sterilization, and the Experiments of Dr. Mengele. Now It's Genetic Technology and the Free Market. the People Who Dream of Creating a Superior Race Are Back

Article excerpt

On a not too distant horizon, advances in human biotechnology may enable us to engineer the specific genetic makeup of our children. Only a few months ago, the headline-making Italian doctor Severino Antinori claimed to have implanted cloned embryos in several women. We are already at the stage where we can selectively terminate our offspring if certain genetic criteria are not met. Soon it may be possible to discern, and ultimately select for or against, individual traits in our children.

It is at this juncture that the promise of biotechnology runs head-on into the history and the horrors of eugenics--the quest for biological "improvement" through reproductive control.

At the start of the 20th century, British scientist Francis Galton coined the term eugenics, from the Greek eugenes, for "well-born." He later distinguished two major kinds of eugenics, positive and negative. "Positive eugenics" was preferential breeding of socalled "superior individuals" in order to improve the genetic stock of the human race. "Negative eugenics" meant discouraging or legally prohibiting reproduction by individuals thought to have "inferior" genes and was to be "achieved by counseling or by sterilization, either voluntary or enforced." (1) Galton, who was Charles Darwin's cousin, described eugenics as "the science of improving stock...to give the more suitable races a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable." (2) He founded the Eugenics Society in 1907 "to spread eugenic teaching and bring human parenthood under the domination of eugenic ideals." (3)

A popular social movement in support of such ideals had arisen in the late 19th century in the United States and Europe. This movement reached its zenith in the 1930s, but dissolved following World War II and the disclosure of the horrific eugenic practices of the Nazis. Nonetheless, support for the genetic control of human beings did not disappear, and public endorsement of eugenic ideals continued to surface.

The 1962 Ciba Foundation conference, "Man and His Future," is a case in point. Conference participants, including many of the leading biotechnology researchers of that time, agreed that molecular biology would allow "mankind" to master evolution. Some argued that genetic modification to encourage "positive" inherited traits could be part of a broader strategy to establish a better future for humanity. (4)

A 1980 report by the European Commission's Technology Forecasting Office provides another example. The report boldly predicted: "The coming twenty to thirty years will, it is thought, see two major changes: the computerization of society (and)...the biological revolution emanating from the boom of the 'life technologies.'...Within the relatively near future, biotechnology could be used in a number of sectors: we could control the development of the human embryo, and, perhaps within twenty years, determine its sex. We could prevent certain malfunctions." (5)

Some of these forecasts have since been realized, and several have been exceeded. (6) Sex determination is not only possible, but in some places it is quite popular--especially in cultures and nations where female children are "less desirable." Prenatal diagnosis and pre-implantation diagnosis make it possible to "select" certain embryos prior to implanting them in a woman.

Some scientists and philosophers consider such techniques to be an unmistakable reversion to eugenic practices. The trouble, they note, is that the logic of eugenics--the rational management of a population for some "higher end"--is a logic readily amenable to other, far more sinister projects than those envisioned by "racist" and "non-racist" eugenicists, and perhaps by proponents of the new biotechnology. The Holocaust is but one case in point.

Some biotech proponents support these technologies because people are free to choose them or not. …