Eugenics and Human Rights in the Modern World

Zoe Bodinetz

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

16. Marriage and Family. Every grown-up has the right to marry and have a family if they want to. Men and women have the same rights when they are married, and when they are separated.

Eugenics is defined as the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Francis Galton was one of the leading scientists in this area, but the most notable use of its principles was the by the Nazis.

It is easy to assume that eugenics is a thing of the past. With the backdrop of the Second World War and the subsequent associations with the Nazi regime, one would think it has become a universally condemned practice. However, the demise of eugenics did not follow the end of World War II: the ideologies that inspired eugenicists continue to be subtly pervasive in modern attitudes and medical approaches.

One of the most prolific post-war eugenics programs took place in many of the southern states of America, most notably, North Carolina. From 1929 to as recently as 1974, more than 7,600 individuals in North Carolina were sterilised under the state’s sweeping eugenics programme. The programme saw social workers given the right to nominate individuals considered ‘feebleminded, mentally ill, promiscuous, lazy or unfit’ for (sometimes involuntary) sterilisation. This included victims of rape, incest and women who were already mothers. The state used the threat of removing welfare benefits as coercion for submitting to these operations – the survivors have only recently been recogniszed as victims and financially compensated. (1)

Those targeted were disproportionately black and female, and almost universally poor, with African American women making up 60% of the targets by the 1960s, despite being a minority in the population, propagating harmful race and class discriminatory attitudes. The racial bias of these operations was blatant, with Chapel Hill Weekly once reporting ‘the feebleminded Negro woman, often with illegitimate children, is a familiar and recurrent problem to health and welfare agencies.’ (1)

In a shocking statement, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932,) averred,

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

His sentiments on particular social or ethnic groups being disproportionately responsible for crime and problematic social behaviour continue to be an underlying theme in class and race tensions in 21st century Britain. An uncomfortable parallel can be drawn between the idea of justifying the sterilisation of poorer citizens to lessen the financial strain on the state, as well as the rejection of immigrants in order to preserve bourgeois standards.

“Tuberculosis is costing the National Health Service a great deal of money, and much of that is coming from southern and eastern Europe.” – Nigel Farage

Whilst this isn’t explicitly ‘eugenics’ as such, the xenophobic sentiments and superiority complexes behind such attitudes stem from an alarmingly similar place.   

Another current and widespread debate, concerning the removal of autonomy from women, is whether they should be allowed abortions. This is reminiscent of the ordeal suffered by victims of sterilisation; both are the result of agendas that force motherhood to become a political act. This example of the sexism that inspires men (and women) to monopolise women’s bodies shows that we have still not completely escaped the fundamental thinking that was used to justify eugenics regimes. In the same vein, the scenes at the American border under Trump’s policies which saw the separation of children and their parents is a shocking example of the state harmfully interfering with a parent’s right to have children, and shows how far is left to go before America can truly say their historically racist and sexist ethos is behind them.

With modern advancements in genetic research, embryonic screening is becoming increasingly commonplace, with its efforts directed at reducing the proliferation of hereditary diseases. Since, by definition, eugenics refers to efforts aimed at increasing ‘desirable’ and reducing ‘undesirable’ traits in offspring, does it not then follow that embryonic screening could fall under the same definition? Or is it the case that specifically the race and class components make eugenics so castigated?

While eugenicists have historically claimed the authority to dictate what qualifies as a ‘desirable’ trait, are we now willing to surrender this same authority to current medical professionals? The ethical debate surrounding prenatal screening is huge and important; we as humans are surely able to claim the right to illness, or as Huxley in Brave New World describes it, ‘the right to be unhappy’. Are we really comfortable with geneticists having the final say on what counts as a disability, and adjusting our families accordingly?

There was a famous case of a deaf lesbian couple who sought out sperm donors with a history of deafness in their family, in the hope of having deaf children. They received wide criticism when their story went public, but argued that not only would they be able to be better parents to a deaf child, they also didn’t view deafness as a disability. While their logic is arguably flawed in terms of the direct intentions of choosing deafness for their child, their comments on whether deafness should be considered a disability are an important example of the impossibility and potentially insulting consequences of discouraging parents from having disabled children.

This article does not aim to condemn geneticists work, only to exemplify again the traces of eugenics principles that remain today, and urges the reader to acknowledge that eugenics is just one example of shameful history whose underlying principles still circulate today.

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