Academic journal article New Formations

Eugenetics: A Polemical View of Social Policy in the Genetic Age

Academic journal article New Formations

Eugenetics: A Polemical View of Social Policy in the Genetic Age

Article excerpt

It is sometimes suggested by scholars that eugenics was a form of pseudoscientific aberration of the first half of the twentieth century which is nowadays of historical interest perhaps, but has no place in contemporary scientific society. Indeed for James Watson, co-discoverer of the basic physical properties of the DNA molecule and a long-serving human geneticist:

   [t]he science underpinning [eugenics] was bogus, and the social
   program[me]s constructed upon it utterly reprehensible. (1)

Nonetheless, eugenic ideology, and particularly ideas that the human race may and should be 'improved', is certainly extant today. It is uncommon for what Watson terms 'the E word' to be explicitly cited, but the links are there with this 'bogus' and 'reprehensible' way of formulating social policy (it is worth remembering, in this context, that the prime mover behind the 1948 Welfare State, William Beveridge, was an active and committed member of the English Eugenics Society). The fundamental issue to be borne in mind is that the overt eugenics movement in the west had two key values: the 'improvement of the human stock' and the avoidance of financial drain on society. This is clearly seen in the 1929 report of the UK government Mental Deficiency Committee (The Wood Committee):

   [t]he science of eugenics is doing invaluable service in focusing
   scientific thought and public opinion upon the racial, social and
   economic problems that the subnormal group presents to every
   civilised nation ... no nation that regards its future welfare
   seriously can afford to ignore the results and recommendations of
   the scientific study of this problem. (2)

and was also made explicit by Marie Stopes:

   birth control was the best method to eliminate the hoards (sic) of
   weak, unhealthy, and tainted poor children whose dependence on
   tax-supported welfare program[me]s prevented the overburdened middle
   classes from producing more children of good quality. (3)

In the UK, the English Eugenics Education Society (founded in 1907) is now known as the Galton Institute. (4) This organisation is both diverse and well-connected, as the 'aims' section of its website indicates:

   The Institute has a wide range of inter-disciplinary interests which
   include the measurement and description of human attributes, human
   heredity, genetic counselling, the influence of the environment and
   the causes of disease, the family unit, birth control, differential
   fertility, marriage guidance, infecundity, artificial insemination,
   voluntary sterilisation, termination of pregnancy, demography,
   population problems and migration. (5)

The Institute holds a major conference each year, and sponsors the annual Darwin lecture in human biology. In a paper presented to the 1999 conference, one US-based professor waxed lyrical about the future eugenic potential of genetic research. In his view, the twenty-first century heralds a 'golden age for eugenics'. (6) Similarly James Watson, despite his denouncement of eugenics noted above, is enthused by the idea that individuals may be enhanced, and thus 'improved', by genetic treatments and manipulation. (7)

Watson certainly has clear and unambiguous views about the uses of genetic testing of foetuses in this context. Having noted that such tests 'do not cure', he calls instead for the eradication of 'genetic disability' as a practical alternative to what is, in his view, a misconceived idea that 'we will ever effectively control the majority of genetic diseases'. (8) Meanwhile John Sulston, 'Britain's leading geneticist' (and, at the time of the article cited here, vice-chairman of the (UK) Human Genetics Commission), adds his weight to the argument: 'if we can select children who are not going to be severely disadvantaged then we should do so'. (9) It is this blending of eugenic ideology (whether openly acknowledged or not) and genetic science that is here thought of as 'eugenetics'. …

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