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The Eugenics Debate
THE current debate on the re-emergence of eugenics is worrying, as most of its proponents seem to be urging for gene manipulation for higher intelligence and beauty, while only a few are concerned with its dystopian implications.
Plato was the first to develop the idea of eugenics, which literally means ‘good race/stock’, to improve the human race through controlled and selective mating. In ancient Greece, if a child was considered incapable of living independently by the city elders he was either executed or exposed to the elements to die. Similarly, the Fourth Law of the Roman Republic stated that deformed children must be put to death, and patriarchs could discard infants at their discretion.
Thus, disability has always been seen as an aberration of the natural order of things. With the advent of religion, local communities and religious institutions looked after lepers and people with physical and intellectual disabilities. In the 17th and 18th centuries, lazar and leper houses, infirmaries, hospitals, charities and retreats were built for people with disabilities, but these institutions could not change attitudes towards them.
In the 19th century, Darwin published his Origin of the Species, which led Sir Francis Galton to revive the theory of eugenics in 1865 on the basis that the theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest precluded care for the disabled. Social Darwinists believed that ‘unfit’ people should be wiped out to make way for evolution of superior human beings. This led to the enactment of the first disability policy in the US in 1883, preventing people with disabilities from marrying and procreating, and introducing enforced sterilisation.
Disability has always been seen as an aberration.
Eugenics was supported by Charles Davenport, the Carnegie Institute, presidents of Harvard and Stanford Universities, and the Wharton School to restrict immigration of non-Nordic races into the US. In Japan, the National Eugenic Law was promulgated in 1940 under which sterilisation could be carried out on criminals, albinos, epileptics and patients with mental illnesses.
In its heyday in Britain, eugenics attracted eminent people like Julian Huxley, G.B. Shaw, Stephen Webb H.G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, Havelock Ellis, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill and even William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare state in England. It also enabled the enactment in England of the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which allowed segregation of the ‘feeble minded’ and their selective sterilisation.
In Nazi Germany, under the principle of ‘racial hygiene’, experimentation was carried out on living human beings and ‘human material’ was gathered from the notorious Auschwitz camp. In 1939, the programme was initially aimed at children under three with disabilities and people with psychiatric conditions in state-run hospitals and institutions. However, forced sterilisation was carried out on around 400,000 people, and between 100,000 to 200,000 institutionalised persons with disabilities were killed through euthanasia, lethal injections and gas.
It was only after the Second World War and in reaction to these heinous crimes that eugenics became unpopular. It was replaced by social biology, followed by anthropology, biology and biogenetics. In the meantime, many countries including the US, UK, Canada, Switzerland and Sweden continued to sterilise ‘unfit’ people until the 1970s. Even today, people with disabilities continue to face systemic and systematic apartheid despite many UN resolutions and conventions on medical ethics and the rights of persons with disabilities.
Today, the debate is whether to restrict genetic engineering to reduce the incidence of disability or whether this kind of meddling will open up a Pandora’s box of moral and practical issues. While embryo selection may make people more resistant to disease, it will also inevitably lead to the misuse of technology, for instance, sex selection, or increasing IQ levels of certain populations for political reasons.
It is also argued that the future of human and other species may become unpredictable as a result of precipitate scientific interventions as has happened in the case of nuclear science, global warming and environmental degradation.
However, screening policies for couples in Cyprus have helped to reduce the ratio of children born with thalassaemia to almost zero, while in Israel, genetic tests have helped to control hereditary diseases such as Tay-Sachs. DNA mutations can be reduced through bio and stem cell technology to prevent seizures, strokes, visual and hearing impairments, and other serious conditions.
With these scientific breakthroughs, the anti-eugenics movement propounding human diversity has little support from parents of children with disabilities in poor countries where less than one per cent of persons with disabilities are able to live in dignity or achieve their potential. If medical science is about stopping nature from destroying the body and mind, the restricted use of eugenics can perhaps help to at least reduce the incidence of disabilities in the future.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2016