What Is Eugenics?

More

Ezra writes that it's "very unfair" to apply the word "eugenics" to, say, the contemporary trend toward the elimination of Down's Syndrome by selective abortion, because "traditionally, the term has been used to denote efforts to direct or encourage breeding by high status, socially dominant individuals in order to select for their characteristics, and discourage breeding by low status individuals (criminals, the insane, blacks, etc) in order to wipe their characteristics from the gene pool. For Ross to conflate that with parents who decide to abort infants with medically disastrous genetic mutations is a real stretch."

First of all, Down's Syndrome is not a "medically disastrous" genetic mutation, unless you take an extremely broad definition of the term "disastrous." Second, while the means of "traditional eugenics" were obviously very different from what's emerging now - involving state power rather than parental choice, and selective breeding/sterilization rather than prenatal genetic screening and abortion - the ends were the same: the genetic improvement of the human species through the scientific management of the reproductive process. Obviously, the question of whether and when to apply the term is contested, since nobody wants to be associated with the way early-twentieth century eugenics was practiced in the United States. But the use of the word to describe the abortion of the genetically-disordered, and the possible long-term Gattacization of reproduction, is hardly a reductio ad Hitlerum; it's more of a reductio ad these guys. Moreover, the usage hardly unique to the political Right - see here and here and here and here and so on. (That guy Habermas: What a wingnut!) Indeed, many defenders of genetic enhancement through prenatal intervention - and by other means as they become available - have embraced the term "liberal eugenics" (to be contrasted with the old, authoritarian eugenics), rather than repudiating it. Which suggests that it's not all that "unfair" a word for conservatives to use to describes the practices and trends in question.

Jump to comments

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

It's the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down