Cloning and the New Eugenics

Article excerpt

It's ba-aack.

Eugenics, the ideology that seeks to improve humankind by manipulating our collective gene pool, is making a comeback. Not only is this pernicious utopianism regaining respectability, but with the advent of computers and recent breakthroughs in bioscience, a "new eugenics" would be far more robust and effective than the "old eugenics" ever was.

Eugenics originated with the English mathematician and statistician, Francis Galton. A cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton believed that heredity governed human talent and character just as it does eye coloration and facial features. In 1865 he proposed that society adopt the selective breeding techniques of animal husbandry as a means to improve society. He later coined the term eugenics, which means "good in birth," to identify the cause.

In its boom years of the 1920s and 1930s, eugenics developed into a very influential social and political movement in the United States, Canada, England, and Germany. In the U.S. alone, eugenics theory was taught in more than 350 American universities and appeared in more than 90 percent of high school biology textbooks. Eugenics societies were formed throughout the country and academic journals proliferated. Philanthropic foundations, such as the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations embraced the movement wholeheartedly, financing eugenics research and policy initiatives. Many of the political, cultural, and arts icons of the day-including Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Margaret Sanger-- were proud eugenicists.

Eugenicists took two distinct approaches to implementing their theories. Believers in "positive eugenics" sought to persuade men and women possessing "worthy" traits to intermarry and procreate liberally in order to strengthen the human gene pool. (Four children per marriage was thought to be the minimum number necessary to maintain a given stock.) There were even prizes awarded to large families exhibiting the best eugenic traits.

Positive eugenics perniciously undermined human equality by claiming that some humans were inherently better than others. But its evil twin, "negative eugenics," was even worse. Believing that eugenic marriages would be insufficient to hold back the rising tide of "unfit" humanity, negative eugenics sought to prevent those with "undesirable" traits from procreating at all: Under the spell of eugenics, more than 30 states passed laws that resulted in 60,000 innocent Americans being forcibly sterilized. Matters were even worse in Germany: not only did the government sterilize hundreds of thousands of people, but the eugenics movement provided intellectual justification for the euthanasia Holocaust circa 1939-1945, during which German doctors murdered more than 250,000 disabled infants, children, and adults.

Horrified by the bloodshed and oppression, the West turned away from eugenics. Branded a "pseudo-science," eugenics was pronounced stone-cold dead-and good riddance to it.

But eugenics wasn't really dead; it was merely hibernating. Memories of the Holocaust faded and religious faith waned as reverence for naked science increased and researchers unlocked many of the mysteries of life at the molecular level. For many, the belief in the sanctity of human life became passe. These events reached into the eugenics grave and like the evil alien in Stephen King's It, the beast stretched, yawned, and began to stir.

The trouble started in the early 1970s: only thirty years after the euthanasia Holocaust killing genetically "unfit" babies once again became a topic of conversation among the bioethics elite and scientific intelligentsia. For example, Nobel Laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA helix, declared in 1973, "No one should be thought of as alive until about three days after birth," adding that parents would then be "allowed the choice" to keep their baby or "allow" their child to die if his or her genetics did not pass muster. …