Yin and Yang: The Eugenic Policies of the United States and China: Is the Analysis That Black and White?

By Rodgers, Gail | Houston Journal of International Law, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Yin and Yang: The Eugenic Policies of the United States and China: Is the Analysis That Black and White?


Rodgers, Gail, Houston Journal of International Law


If in the First Act you hang a gun upon the wall, by the Third Act you must use it.

Chekhov

I. INTRODUCTION

As technological and scientific advances proliferate, innumerable questions regarding legal, cultural, ethical, and human rights issues arise begging for answers. In the ever-broadening global climate of economics and human rights, politicians and world leaders are more frequently asking about the impact of these technologies on the policies of countries around the world. More specifically, as genetic and reproductive options are enlarged, their effects elicit questions related to procreative rights, discrimination, and population policy. The purpose of this comment is to analyze the eugenic practices and policies of the United States and China, and comment on their respective human rights implications.

This Comment will outline the development of the eugenics movement and how eugenic practices have largely been abandoned in the United States. This will be contrasted with the continuing eugenic sterilization practices in China. This comment will also distinguish the social goals of sterilization policies in both countries. It will recognize as the primary distinction in policy the fundamental choice of whether to subordinate the well being of the individual to the well being of society. In addition, it will discuss the permissive genetic policies in the United States which may implicitly endorse eugenic practices.

II. EUGENICS DEFINED

For many, the term "eugenics" conjures up some image of a science fiction experiment gone amuck. The film industry has produced enough movies of aliens bred to have certain omnipotent or omniscient capabilities to somewhat justify that notion. However, the term "eugenics" comes by this connotation honestly, as it was first widely discredited in connection with atrocities of Nazi policies in Germany.(1) Surprisingly, the beginning of eugenics comes from a more palatable background. Plato was one of the earliest theorists to advocate the betterment of the human race by choosing the correct mate.(2) The term "eugenics" comes from the Greek word meaning "well born."(3) It was coined by Charles Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, who defined it as "the science of improving stock."(4) Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, described it as more of a social movement than a science in that it "attempt[s] to improve the biological character of a breed by deliberate methods adopted to that end."(5) There is some controversy over the definition of eugenics and how broadly the term sweeps. Much of the controversy focuses on whether eugenics should be defined in terms of the intent of the policies or their consequences.(6) However, all eugenicists share the common belief that "individual desires should be subordinated to a larger public purpose."(7)

The definition of eugenics can be further delineated into "positive" and "negative" eugenics. Positive eugenics is similar to Plato's view which attempts to improve the race through selection and maximization of "socially desirable" genes.(8) In this instance, eugenicists try to manipulate genes or the mating of genes to increase the incidence of "positive" or "desirable traits."(9) This can be contrasted with the more controversial negative eugenics which seeks to eliminate those "bad" or "undesirable" genes or traits from the gene pool.(10) The most infamous example of negative eugenics was Hitler's attempt in the Lebensborn Project to produce "good babies."(11) Accounts vary as to the actual numbers, but historians agree that Hitler had as many as sixty to a hundred thousand "unfit" persons sterilized in an attempt to prohibit reproduction by defectives and eliminate their bad genes from the human race.(12) Eugenicists believed that through the use of both positive and negative eugenics they could eliminate many so-called hereditary defects such as mental retardation, criminality, and mental illness, and thereby eradicate many social problems.

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