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July 30, 2007


This seems like a very unfair use of the term eugenics. 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. The actual link he gives to prove the "the scale of pre-natal eugenics" offers this tidbit: "In Western Australia, neonatal mortality rates due to congenital deformities declined from 4.36 to 2.75 per 1,000 births in the period from 1980 to 1998." I don't even think that fits the definition of eugenics, which is "The study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding." In any case, preventing infants from dying birth defects is really not what the Nazis were trying to do, and not what gave eugenics a bad name.

Now, I understand hat Ross thinks aborting children with congenital deformities is immoral and societally dangerous, and that's fair enough. But to suggest that that's the general understanding of the term eugenics, and thus progressives have eugenicist tendencies, seems quite unfair.

July 30, 2007 | Permalink


I hardly think Down Syndrome qualifies as a "medically disastrous genetic mutation" and the number of Down Syndrome pregnancies (above 90%) is, if not quite eugenics, then absolutely digusting.

Posted by: Dave White | Jul 30, 2007 3:24:50 PM

that should read "...the number of terminated Down Syndrome pregnancies..."

Posted by: Dave White | Jul 30, 2007 3:25:47 PM

Never mind that "medically disastrous complications" generally stem from a variety of factors, and those factors would only be "bred" out of the system if we identified everyone who carried that genetic trait and then forced them to stop breeding. Oh, and banning the use of all drugs and alcohol. And banning corporations from polluting. And cell replication.

So, however objectionable one finds the issue under discussion, eugenics it ain't.

Posted by: James F. Elliott | Jul 30, 2007 3:27:29 PM

Aborting a fetus due to a genetic defect is eugenics. There is no two ways about it.

The issue is that not all "eugenics" is immoral. Aborting a fetus with Tay-Sachs disease isn't an immoral act. But it is definitely eugenics. Just call a spade a spade and move on.

Posted by: Bill | Jul 30, 2007 3:36:42 PM

This seems like a very unfair use of the term eugenics.

You know, it's just barely possible that Douthat's political views are dramatically different than yours.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jul 30, 2007 3:43:14 PM

Dave White thinks that Downs is not medically disastrous? What in heaven's name would Dave White accept as being medically disastrous?

Posted by: Warren Terra | Jul 30, 2007 3:49:51 PM

Of course it's an unfair argument. You should not make the assumption that people make arguments in good faith. The fact that he puts this argument forward merely serves to show that Ross is either dumb or disingenuous.

People that make these arguments don't fight fair. Don't whine. I'd suggest you respond by pointing out that they objectively favor post birth euginicist programs of violence, or simply ignore it.

Calling the argument unfair is a pointless tautology that moves the ground of debate from policy (should we alow safe legal abortion) to personality (are liberals evil eugenicist Nazi proxies). Don't be put on the defensive by an obviously specious argument.

Posted by: IMU | Jul 30, 2007 3:55:18 PM

Can we at least acknowledge who the criticism is coming from? Beck is grabbing onto eugenics only because it's a scary term he can add to the pile of scary terms trying to convince people of the evils of abortion. Disability rights advocates and others who argue against aborting fetuses with certain defects (largely the non-fatal sort) are arguing in good faith, and usually from "your side" on the abortion debate -- which in the end is what Beck is fanning the flames for -- and I think we all know that of all things, "arguing in good faith" is something Glenn Beck is not.

Posted by: amanda w | Jul 30, 2007 4:21:12 PM

For Ross to conflate that with parents who decide to abort infants with medically disastrous genetic mutations is a real stretch.

That's better than the usual stretch, which is to equate affordable access to abortion with a deliberate effort to have the poor exterminate themselves.

Posted by: Grumpy | Jul 30, 2007 4:30:04 PM

Aborting a fetus with Tay-Sachs disease isn't an immoral act. But it is definitely eugenics.

I really don't think it is. To have any meaning at all, the word has to imply *some* sort of concerted planning by somebody aimed at shaping the composition of the broader society. That has always been a central element of the word. If all you're doing is trying to dictate the composition of your own family, that hardly qualifies.

It's the difference between: "As a matter of principle, society should not have people with birth defects in it" and "I don't personally want to raise a child with a birth defect". Do you really think both kinds of decision deserve the 'eugenics' label? One has public motives, the other intensely private ones. If they're the same thing then the word is meaningless.

Heck, if the second decision is eugenics, so is *any* abortion for any reason. Heck, so is choosing to have babies with someone because they're good-looking.

Posted by: Ryan | Jul 30, 2007 4:32:58 PM

As IMU pointed out, this is simply the continuation of the old "pro-choicers = Nazis!" meme by a different means.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 30, 2007 4:36:47 PM

"Very unfair" is exceedingly generous. It's one of the most dishonest uses of language I've seen since...well, this morning's post by Dean Barnett.

But I digress.

Ryan is absolutely right about what 'eugenics' really means. Douthat is redefining the term beyond all recognition (so it includes things liberals really do support--e.g., reproductive choice), then using it as if it still had its original (non-distorted) meaning.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jul 30, 2007 4:42:08 PM

I basically agree with Ezra that it's unfair and incorrect. However, I feel it's also unfair and incorrect to call the trailer for the new video game racist. There is a parallel here. Some argued, not without some reason, that the trailer was "functionally racist," i.e. that it had racist effects, whatever the intentions of its makers. The same applies here: abortion choices made on the basis of genetic defects (let's call them) has pretty much the same effect as eugenics, to weed out those defects from the gene pool. I would argue against both usages, of "functional racism" and "functional eugenics."

It's interesting that some liberals (and the parallel point is also true of some racists) embrace the term "eugenics," as Douthat points out, and as we can see in this thread.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 30, 2007 5:26:00 PM

If one believes(as I assume that Ross does) that abortion is similar or equivalent to murder, then aborting babies with genetic defects is functionally similar to the Nazi programme of gassing children with genetic defects, which is why it bothers him, and why he uses the word. Then again, all abortions therefore bother him.

Incidentally, 'eugenics' is a pretty nasty word, but I think that there is going to have to be a full debate at some point as to how far we do want to move with pre-birth screening + abortion. As someone who is philosophically pro-choice, I find it quite hard to work out where to draw a line, or even if a line can/should be drawn (especially if both screening and termination could happen in 1st trimester, when the moral issues are least complex.)

Posted by: JohnTh | Jul 30, 2007 5:45:54 PM

Dave White thinks that Downs is not medically disastrous? What in heaven's name would Dave White accept as being medically disastrous?

Well I dunno, but a non-fatal mental condition that millions upon millions of people live with happily and healthily certainly ain't it.

Considering anyone with Down syndrome a "medical disaster" is an insult akin to racism.

Posted by: Dave White | Jul 30, 2007 5:53:13 PM

Aborting a fetus due to a genetic defect is eugenics. There is no two ways about it.

The issue is that not all "eugenics" is immoral. Aborting a fetus with Tay-Sachs disease isn't an immoral act. But it is definitely eugenics. Just call a spade a spade and move on.

While I morally oppose selective abortion on many grounds and in many situations, I don't think what we're talking about really amounts to full-blown eugenics. Eugenics would imply some sort of concentrated effort to improve the gene pool through coordinated selective abortion. Individual families making isolated decisions largely in private doesn't really meet the "conspiracy" minimum.

If a person who believed in the genetic inferiority of the jewish people were to then go out and murder a bunch of jews, they'd be guilty of a hate crime, not of eugenics. Likewise, if a white guy believed in the genetic inferiority of African Americans and refused to date (and breed with) black people, he'd be 1) an a-hole, and 2) of questionable morals (morally disastrous?) but he wouldn't really be a eugenicist.

Posted by: Dave White | Jul 30, 2007 6:08:25 PM

The use of the term "eugenics" in this context is disingenuous and deliberately inflammatory. Almost all abortions in the U.S. are the terminations of unwanted pregnancies for reasons unrelated to the genetic state of the fetus. Generally put, these abortions stem from the fact that life circumstances of one kind or another prompt the decision to terminate the pregnancy. This is just not eugenics.

In a tiny minority of circumstances people grapple with conditions like Downs Syndrome or serious genetic anomolies that pose very difficult issues for the prospective parents. I think you have to be an incredibly arrogant son of a bitch to suggest that you know the universal answer to the questions that arise from these circumstances. In other words, you show some humility and let people decide what they can or cannot handle in this regard.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Jul 30, 2007 6:33:12 PM

Ah, this what happens when words become untethered from context.

Eugenics, historically and practically, is synonymous with "racial hygene". That is, a systematic attempt to "improve the breed" through policies of selective breeding and, in extreme instances, culling. Essentially applying the methods of dog breeding to human beings.

The crudity of the comparison is intentional since it ought to be remembered that eugenics developed in the primitive stage of the modern science of genetics as we know it. The early advocates of eugenics were arguing that humans could be bred pretty much the same way that Farm animals were.

Since they were unaware of the significance of human DNA, much less capable of mapping it, their methodology was based on gross physical characteristics and assumed norms applied to family lineages or bloodlines. Unsurprisingly, eugenics was quickly associated with prevalent racialist notions of Nordic races, Latin races and Anglo Saxon races, ranked in a heirarchy of presumedly innate strengths and weaknesses.

Modern Genetics, advances in Mental Health and Biology have made hash of the suppositions that underpinned eugenics, which is now described as a pseudo science on a par with phrenology.

All of which is a long way of explaining that an individual woman's choice of an abortion is in no way comparable to eugenics, not even if she chooses to abort because the fetus has a genetic defect.

Why? For the reason that even the healthy children born of such a woman would likely carry the identical gene which predisposed their mother towards congenital birth defects in the first place. They would run the same risk as their mother in terms of their own offspring. The genetic defect isn't eliminated, merely held in abeyance.

To sum up. Since there is no systematic attempt to "improve the breed" and since no such actual "improvement of the breed" is anticipated or attained, the comparison to eugenics has no basis whatever.

Of course if someone wants to argue that eugenics and abortion are both immoral and compare them in that sense they can but as a practical matter there is no connection between the two.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 30, 2007 7:02:17 PM

WBR, there is no question that aborting fetuses with genetic defects reduces the frequency of those defects in the population, the same effect sought in eugenics. However, in the case of diseases that would prevent the fetus from reproducing, the frequency of the genetic cause in the gene pool won't be affected, so there is that difference from the mediate goal and defining tactic of eugenics. You could argue (and I would agree) that this difference is enough not to call it eugenics.

But in other cases, such as cleft palate (yes, there is reproductive selection, including abortion, based on such conditions), the effect is also to reduce the frequency of the genetic trait, thus "improving" the gene pool. The difference between this and eugenics lies in the intent, not in the effects. That would be the basis for a charge of "functional eugenics," for those who believe in that kind of expanded usage.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 30, 2007 7:38:59 PM

Sanpete, unless I am misunderstanding, you are conflating the general population with the gene pool. Eliminating the incidence of birth defects in the general population does nothing to eliminate the gene carrying the defect from the gene pool. The vast majority of children with congenital birth defects are born to parents who do not themselves suffer from the defect but carry the gene which produces it, as will their physically normative offspring should they have any.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 30, 2007 7:58:53 PM

WBR, you're right that I'm referring to the genetic make-up of the population, so to speak, not the gene pool. The point is that reproductive selection based on genetic defects like cleft palate, where those who are born with the expressed condition have a greater likelihood of passing on the condition to descendants than do those who don't express the condition, reduces the frequency of the genetic cause of the defect as well as the defect itself, thus "improving" the population's genetic soundness relative to the defect. This would be a case of "functional eugenics," in parallel with "functional racism."

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 30, 2007 8:49:18 PM

Another slight detail is that eugenics as practiced by the nazis and others often refers to some sort of program , often government sponsored. The choice to breed or not is made on a general level not an individual one. This is a top down structure of improving the gene pool through a program of breeding.

The individual is hardly considered in the equation apart from their soundness as breeding stock. Indeed their individual choices are considered irrelevant, and will by default be overridden with the system's choices.

This is at the heart of what makes this such a unamerican term. It doesnt lie in abortion, or populism but the freedom to choose without having the government choosing who you'll be sleeping with tonight in order to produce a child next year.

Posted by: dave b | Jul 30, 2007 10:00:02 PM

Not that it greatly affects this discussion, but just to be clear: Down's syndrome is not really a good example of what WBR and Sanpete are talking about. In nearly all cases, it is not caused by a faulty gene from either parent, but by an error in transmission of the parents' normal chromosomes: the child ends up with three copies of chromosome 21 instead of two, causing cells to function incorrectly, but the genes in each copy are OK. There's no "carrier" for this type of genetic accident; it happens randomly at the time the egg or sperm cell (usually egg) is produced.

Posted by: Hob | Jul 30, 2007 10:09:10 PM

Ezra, why are you taking right-wing talking points seriously?

Posted by: ChristianPinko | Jul 30, 2007 10:24:30 PM

Am I the only one here who is thinking of "The Princess Bride"?


"I don't think that word means what you think it means."


Posted by: Grace | Jul 31, 2007 2:31:25 AM

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