Eugenics and Genetic Screening

Posted by Pete Shanks on May 20th, 2009

Nazi Poster
Nazi poster (see below)

If eugenics makes a come-back, it will likely be as a consumer option, which explains why it tends to be championed by libertarians. A recent report, however, is raising the specter of old-fashioned, state-sponsored eugenics, and doing so from what appears to be a thoroughly libertarian perspective.

The report is from the Citizens' Council on Health Care (CCHC) in St. Paul, MN, and written by its President, Twila Brase. It focuses on the practice of testing the DNA of newborns and keeping the results on file, often without fully informed parental consent. As a consequence, Brase speculates, the government may soon have enough data about individuals to make genetically-based decisions about who would be a "burden on society." Given that, her logic goes, might not some see it as in society's interest at least to sterilize them?

Brase is a committed opponent of "socialized medicine" (video here of a "Tea Party" speech) who recommends that genetic screening programs be privatized as a "protective strategy." Clearly libertarian, then, in her general approach; but worried about eugenics. What gives?

There is no contradiction: Brase's concern is with what some call "negative eugenics" -- government programs to discriminate against, sterilize (or outright murder) the so-called "unfit." The CCHC report does a fine job of relating modern privacy concerns about newborn genetic screening to the sordid history of negative eugenics, but says nothing about "designer babies" or "improved" humans, the so-called "positive eugenics" that some advocate today.

The originator of the term "eugenics," Francis Galton, was in the latter camp. He wanted to improve humanity by selective breeding, and was joined by others who believed these practices would make life better. Eugenics was not, historically, an exclusively right-wing or left-wing movement. It was supported by Fascists and by Socialists; and especially by large numbers of the people in power early in the twentieth century -- Presidents and Supreme Court justices and heads of major universities.

Modern progressive opposition to eugenics is rooted not only in fear of abuse but in notions of fairness, equality and the worth of all people. We can agree with Brase on parental consent and privacy issues without endorsing all her concerns about government. In fact, progressives including George Annas and Abby Lippman (both cited in the CCHC report) have long raised concerns about the expanding number of genetic variants for which newborns can be screened, and about the need for informed parental consent.

If genetic screening does become a seriously useful predictive tool, which is by no means certain, might there be pressure to use it for rationing of care or -- who knows -- even sterilization? The penultimate report of the last President's Bioethics Council raised similar issues. If such abuses were to occur, we could find ourselves agreeing with people at many points on the political spectrum that such practices should be prohibited.

Which would not compromise our opposition to consumer eugenics -- or our support of comprehensive healthcare reform.

The image above is from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, where the text is translated as: "This hereditarily ill person will cost our national community 60,000 Reichmarks over the course of his lifetime. Citizen, this is your money."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Eugenics, Genetic Selection, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights


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