Eugenics and genetics: the missing link

Margaret Sanger

The two concepts are far more connected than most people know.

In my previous column, I reviewed Kira Peikoff’s recently released novel, Living Proof. The heroine of the book, Dr. Arianna Drake, is a geneticist who runs a fertility clinic. Reading through the book, a word from out of the past jumped off the page at me, on page 73. That word was “eugenics.” (That Peikoff even used the word at least shows that she understands that pro-lifers are familiar with the term and that they use it in their arguments.)

A century ago, eugenics – the “scientific” engineering of a master race, created both by the commingling of men and women possessing “superior germ-plasm” and the forcible sterilization of “the unfit” (which included everyone from “mental defectives” to the blind, deaf, “human weeds,” “reckless breeders,” and “moral degenerates”) – was all the rage.

While today, we as a society have the politically correct tendency to couch birth control and abortion in euphemisms such as “women’s reproductive rights,” in 1919, Margaret Sanger – the founder of Planned Parenthood – made no bones about her intentions: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief aim of birth control.” Sanger had no personal qualms against abortion, but she largely kept these sympathies under wraps for the tactical purpose of getting birth control legalized by claiming that using birth control prevented abortions.

Margaret Sanger

Through eugenics, Sanger concocted Planned Parenthood’s “Negro Project,” designed to covertly decrease the black population, by promoting “responsible” birth control among poor blacks. Despite her fanaticism –  which included speaking at Klan rallies – Sanger was not regarded as a crackpot in her own time. Far from it. Major philanthropic organizations put their money behind the eugenics push in the early twentieth century: the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune endowed “race science” departments in such prestigious American universities as Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and Yale.

In 1904, Carnegie money was behind the founding of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York, a eugenics outfit in which research was conducted, and from which “researchers” were sent into the field, to systematically catalog the genetic histories of families all across America. Sanger and her allies pressured Congress and state legislatures to legalize birth control and pass acts for mandatory sterilization of “the unfit” in thirty-three U.S. states. By 1981, when the last mandatory sterilization was performed, in Oregon, more than 65,000 American citizens had been forced to go under the knife and forever lose hope of having their own children.

In 1920s Weimar Germany, rabble-rouser and agitator Adolf Hitler fell under eugenics’ spell. What nearly everybody the world over knows as the Nazi Holocaust under Hitler’s regime during World War II is known only to a precious few for what it was, in Hitler’s eyes: the Germans’ program of euthanasia, sterilization, and extermination was regarded as perfecting the eugenics programs first begun in the United States. Only during the past decade, with the publication of Edwin Black’s detailed history of the eugenics movement and its implementation in most of the Western world in the early twentieth century, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Basic Books, 2003, 608 pp.), are people even aware of what eugenics is.

If eugenics was a bizarre but popular movement whose excesses got out of hand, ending up in the extermination of nearly seven million people – but which has happily been buried in the distant past – why impute to scientists of today its evils? The answer is: because eugenics never really went away.

In fact, the worst public relations nightmare for the eugenics movement – the Holocaust – turned out to be the best thing to ever happen to it. When word started leaking out of Nazi Germany about the horrors going on in the death camps of Dachau, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, the eugenics movement quietly began scrubbing clean its own name out of popular usage. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, eugenics had gone down the memory hole, no longer on the tongues of average Americans. It was as though the word “eugenics” had never even existed. It had been quietly and subtly replaced with a sanitized term, free of Nazi SS baggage: “genetics.” The American people – indeed, the public the world over – were completely unaware of the switcheroo that had been pulled on them.

Which brings us back to Peikoff’s novel. Its topic is embryonic stem cell research, and how Christian (mainly Catholic) theologians take over future America and impose their anti-man ideology on the whole nation by placing frozen embryos off-limits to research and regenerative medicine.

But Peikoff’s cell biologist heroes are not “eugenists” – their particular avocation is genetics. Am I suggesting that Peikoff is a Nazi, or that she would advocate the atrocities of the Third Reich and the scourge of forced sterilization (as well as forced commitment in insane asylums for many citizens judged unfit by eugenics’ standards)? Not at all. For one, Kira Peikoff comes from a Russian-Jewish family. For another, reading Living Proof, it is clear that Peikoff is opposed to the intrusion of the state into people’s lives. As tragically mistaken as Peikoff is as to who deserves to have the title of “person” bestowed upon him, it is clear that she would more than likely speak out against such patent violations of human rights and civil liberties of the rest of us deemed “actual” persons.

So why even bring up eugenics? Isn’t it unfair to impute to the majority of geneticists – beginning with Watson and Crick – the horrors and atrocities of Sanger and Mengele?

Countless advances in medicine have been achieved under the auspices of genetic research. It would be counterproductive to contend that, as eugenics has morphed into the more respectable field of genetics, it has not become more civil and compassionate, and less barbaric and callous. After all, surgery was once the province of barbers, and their favored procedure was bloodletting. Certainly, we do not think of today’s surgeons as butchers with little if any training.

The point is that using the word “eugenics” clarifies exactly what we are talking about. As Rush Limbaugh is fond of saying, “words mean things.” And just as important as a word’s meaning is its origins. The word “surgery,” which has become more refined over the millennia, has never been in need of replacement. However, the word “genetics” began its relatively recent life as a euphemism – a convenient rug under which the ethical difficulties of its predecessor could be swept.

With the harvesting of human embryos for their stem cells, we are re-entering the cruel and inhumane world of eugenics, but without the taint of having the negative connotations that word implied. The field of genetics, after all, is above board, and is overseen by scientists with degrees from our finest institutions. Nothing to see here; move along, people.

The same arguments could have been – and were – used to defend the eugenics movement before World War II. There were ethical concerns with eugenics then, as there were with much done in the name of genetics today. American satirist and newspaperman H.L. Mencken, a “devout atheist” who defended the teaching of evolution in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925, regarded eugenics’ science as mainly bunk and its intended aim as the product of anti-individualist atavism. In a similar vein, British essayist G.K. Chesterton saw the eugenics movement as one of elites, imposing their will on the great unwashed:

The whole point of the Eugenic pseudo-scientific theories is that they are to be applied wholesale, by some more sweeping and generalizing money power than the individual husband or wife or household. Eugenics asserts that all men must be so stupid that they cannot manage their own affairs; and also so clever that they can manage each other’s.

By ignoring, or dismissing, the history of the eugenics movement, and the ethical problems generated by it (that have not completely gone away by changing its name), Kira Peikoff is guilty of letting history repeat itself, because “geneticists” generations ago willfully and consciously forgot it. But there are two other words that are crucial to understanding where Peikoff is coming from: “potential” and “parasite.” We will revisit these in the next column.

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