Eugenics and the left, then and now
By Charles Moore [First appeared in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal – August 7, 2008]
Reposted here with permission from the author.
A couple of weeks ago the National Post published a column by biographer and broadcaster Michael Coren elucidating how many iconic figures of the 20th-Century left, such as Playwright George Bernard Shaw, English socialist guru Sydney Webb, abortion activist and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, and Canada’s own ‘father of medicare” T.C. Douglas were advocates of eugenics as part of their social engineering enthusiasms in the years prior to Hitler’s Nazis making overt eugenics politically incorrect.
Douglas, who has been accorded secular sainthood in Canadian popular mythology – voted “the Greatest Canadian of all time” in a 2004 nationally-televised CBC contest – themed his 1933 master’s thesis in sociology, “The Problems of the Subnormal Family,” on eugenics advocacy.
As journalist John Robson noted in an investigative piece for the July 3, 2006, Western Standard, Douglas used in his thesis derogatory terms like “subnormal,-defective” and “moron” for what we today call “special needs” individuals, advocated compulsory certificates of “mental and physical fitness” plus seven days public notice before marrying.
We can’t excuse Douglas on grounds of youthful idiocy – he was nearly 30 years old at the time, although in fairness and to his credit, he did, after visiting Nazi Germany, condemn Hitler and the Munich Pact in 1938 and was a vigorous advocate of Canada’s joining the fight against Nazi atrocity and aggression.
Nor was Douglas’s pre-Hitler moral blind spot all that different from a similar lack of discernment afflicting a great many people today, as eugenics has made a big comeback under new names.
Hitler’s Holocaust slammed the front door on eugenics as popular public policy, as it was in the 1930s when many U.S. states and the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia forced sterilization of the “feebleminded,” and in some cases of persons in custody deemed to suffer from hereditary defects and/or criminal tendencies. Harvard University’s dean of anthropology Ernest Hooton lamented in his 1937 book “Apes, Men, and Morons” that advances in medical science, as a side-effect, had permitted weak and/or defective human specimens to survive to reproductive maturity.
“I believe that this nation requires a biological purge if it is to check the growing numbers of the physically inferior, the mentally ineffective, and the antisocial,” Hooton declaimed, arguing that “a scientifically valid program of eugenics would enforce “restriction of breeding among the insane, diseased, and criminal,” and encourage reproduction in “families with sound physiques, good mental endowments, and demonstrable social and economic capability,” so again, in fairness, Tommy Douglas wasn’t exactly swimming against the mainstream of public and academic sentiment with his thesis.
And in our time eugenics has snuck in the back door aided by technologies like amniocentesis and ultrasound, which can provide pre-partum knowledge of an unborn child’s sex, as well as presence or potential of congenital defects and predispositions to disease. With de-facto abortion-on-demand available nearly everywhere in North America. Europe, and non-Muslim Asia, parents can and do exercise neo-eugenics by aborting babies deemed to have undesirable traits – be they defects or just the “wrong” gender.
With genetics science advancing at warp speed, “designer babies” are already a limited reality. One Time magazine poll found 39 per cent of respondents said they would consider abortion if tests indicated that the baby had an incurable, life-threatening disease.
The philosophically naive may consider such a choice morally justifiable or even commendable, but once society gets comfortable with pre-empting seriously defective children, it’s only a baby-step from there to aborting children with other “undesirable” traits; ADD? dyslexia? allergies?
The “line” gets drawn in many different places, but the real line is crossed when we entertain the notion of pre-partum infanticide for any reason.
Rationalizations attempting to justify abortion such as “every child a wanted child” differ little from conclusions of the man who originally coined the term eugenics (“good in birth”), Francis Galton (1822-1911), fittingly a cousin of Darwin, who wrote: “Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied.”
It’s no coincidence that the rise of eugenics and abortion pretty much coincided with the rise of secularist humanism and decline of traditional Christianity’s cultural traction. Orthodox Christianity doesn’t share liberalism’s rose-tinted optimism about human perfectibility in this world, and Christian teaching affirms the worth and dignity of every human being, “wanted” or not.
Charles W. Moore is a Nova Scotian freelance writer and editor. He can be reached by email at [email protected]