Eugenics Triumphant in Prenatal Testing

By Meehan, Mary | The Human Life Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Eugenics Triumphant in Prenatal Testing


Meehan, Mary, The Human Life Review


Part II: The Resistance

The first part of this series described the deep influence eugenics - the effort to breed a better human race - had in encouraging prenatal testing and eugenic abortion. It explained the major roles of the American Eugenics Society, the American Society of Human Genetics, and the March of Dimes in spreading the deadly combination. Part II will show how the U.S. government has funded and promoted prenatal testing and counseling. It will describe how the testing/abortion combination has made pregnancy an ordeal for many women and couples. It will report resistance to the eugenics program and suggest how that resistance might become stronger.

The Heavy Hand of Government

In the 1960s, there was great interest in genetics at a major government agency, the National Institutes of Health. But Rep. John Fogarty (D-R.I.), a key congressional supporter of NIH, was bothered by some 1963 discussion about preventing births of handicapped children. "That is what Hitler was trying to do, was he not?" Fogarty asked. After the congressman's sudden death by heart attack several years later, President Lyndon Johnson named NIH's Fogarty International Center in his honor.1 The Center, ironically, sponsored a 1970 conference on prenatal testing that defied Fogarty 's warning.

Government agencies quietly had funded research on prenatal testing in the 1960s; but the 1970 conference signaled a major push for it.2 Eugenicists and some of their fellow travelers from both the U.S. and England were there. One eugenicist chaired the conference, and others gave major talks.3

Amniocentesis was the main method then used for prenatal testing. It's an invasive procedure in which a doctor pushes a needle through a woman's abdomen and into her uterus to withdraw amniotic fluid for analysis. The test itself causes anxiety. When followed by eugenic abortion, it has devastating effects on many couples - especially on the women. Yet of the 58 participants in the 1970 NIH conference, only three were women. Participants barely mentioned the psychological effects of eugenic abortion. Discussion of ethics was limited and heavily weighted toward the eugenics side. The fix was in.

Abortion was still illegal in most states, for most reasons, when the conference took place. But eight years before, the American Law Institute had proposed that states allow abortion when there is substantial risk of grave fetal defects. Eleven states allowed this by the time of the NIH conference. Denmark's similar provision for eugenic abortion, dating back several decades, had enabled research on prenatal testing in the 1950s and '60s. In the U.S., changes in state laws now offered more research subjects.4

Kurt Hirschhorn, a leading geneticist, told the NIH conference about his laboratory's work on prenatal testing in pregnancies "that were going to be terminated for other reasons." Ironically, in his youth the Austrian-born Hirschhorn had fled the Nazis, who also did experiments on humans destined to be "terminated for other reasons." After Hirschhorn finished medical school and some postgraduate work in the U.S., the American Eugenics Society recommended him for a medical-genetics fellowship. That enabled him to study genetics in Sweden and to write an article about Western European genetics for a 1958 issue of Eugenics Quarterly.

In a 1993 interview, though, he said he was not a member of the eugenics group. To the suggestion that experience as a refugee from the Nazis should have made him "very anti-eugenics," Hirschhorn responded, "Oh, Fm not for eugenics at all" and denied that prenatal testing is one form of it. He said that "you've got to differentiate between genetic manipulation of populations as opposed to helping a particular family with a particular problem."5 Many others make this argument, but it does not stand up historically. As early as 1940, eugenics leader Maurice Bigelow called for primary emphasis on "family eugenics. …

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