The “E” Word–Eugenics and Down’s Babies

Dylan Matthews posting on Ezra Klein’s blog takes on a Michael Gerson’s post where the eugenics charge is out there. Gerson argues that Sarah and Todd Palin keeping their baby to term, though they knew he would be afflicted with Down Syndrome, highlights the reality that genetic screening can and does lead (in his mind) to a neo-eugenics because the vast majority of screened Down’s babies (something like 90%) are aborted.

Gerson sees this as parallel to the tragic and brutal history of Eugenics particularly in America in the 20th century–politically worth noting that such a movement was part of the progressive/liberal establishment. The idea that through rational application and essentially breeding techniques applied to humans, higher average intelligence and therefore greater perfection would be achieved. A kind of this worldly salvation.

D. Matthews counters:

It’s worth looking back at what eugenics actually was before throwing the term around willy-nilly. As practiced in the United States, eugenics involved the forced sterilization of grown women, without their knowledge, with a disproportionately large number of African-American and American Indian women affected. In other words, it was the practice of denying women reproductive choice and autonomy. Kind of like, oh I don’t know, Sarah Palin and Michael Gerson want to do.

This might seem like a gotcha post, but there’s a really serious point here. Eugenics wasn’t murder. Eugenics was the denial of choice. The victims weren’t the prospective children of the sterilized. The victims were the women. So it’s not only false when Gerson uses “eugenics” as synonymous with abortion, it’s extremely disrespectful to the victims and to the concept of women’s personal autonomy generally. There are plenty of rhetorical devices Gerson can use to try to restrict women’s freedom. He’s a good enough speechwriter, so he ought to know them. He didn’t have to choose one that uses the victims of patriarchy to reinforce male privilege. That’s truly perverse.

Now Matthews’ historical analysis is valid–American eugenics involved forced sterilizations–but only to a point. American eugenics wasn’t ultimately a matter of patriarchy as Matthews wants to make it out to be, but rather a class-ist mindset. The individuals were sterilized because they were considered deficient. They were labeled “imbeciles, morons” etc and were assumed not to have been able to raise their own children AND would have spread those genes throughout the gene pool, thereby (according to this logic) diluted an uplifting/intelligent seed in humanity. [Click here for a photo from the era depicting this mindset.]

From Matthews’ telling these women were sterilized just because they were women and it was about male power. That view is undercut by the fact that say Margaret Sanger, the birth control (hence choice by that measure) activist was also a founding mother of eugenics and the policy of sterilizations.

Now you will search in vain for a number of laudatory posts on Michael Gerson on this blog. I’m not usually in the position of defending him, but in this case, I think Matthews’ rebuttal (such as it is) only strengthens Gerson’s case.

The issue is not whether the victims were the mothers or potential children (contra Matthews) but the depiction by those in power of others as “weak” or “incorrect” and therefore a problem to be expunged or fixed. The parallel then is between declaring a lower class woman in 1910 retarded and forcibly (against her will) sterilizing herself and aborting a baby because it is considered “defective” because it’s a Down’s baby.

Further, the reason they were sterilized as previously mentioned was because of fear of their genetic heritage infecting further generations.  Also a fear that because these women were declared to be unable to control themselves, they would out breed the better educated/more moral (in the eugenicist’s view) segment of society.  If it could be shown that the medical establishment by and large supports abortions in these cases and the rationale behind doing so is to eliminate the mutation from the gene pool, well then you are right back in many regards to the earlier forms of eugenics.  I’m not convinced that rationale is proved, but I think it’s a legitimate one to raise. (I assume Gerson would label the medical establishment as holding such a prejudice as axiomatic).

Now I think it’s laudable that the Palins are raising their boy. I had a close friend in college whose brother was a Down’s child and she was adamant that he was a wonderful person as he was. This is not romanticize what is obviously a difficult complication to an already difficult challenge (raising a child). I’m not for politically halting abortions in that case, so in that sense I’m with Matthews.

But for me that isn’t the end of it (not even the beginning of it). I’ve never been in such a situation and to be totally honest I wish I never were, but I could imagine one(s) in which the parents legitimately struggle with the issue during a pregnancy and come to the conclusion that they are not ready or capable to raise such a child and abort. Tragic but I can understand it.

On the other hand, to the degree that the scenario Gerson lays out is real (and I imagine it has to be in some, many? cases), that the de facto split second, “obvious” conclusion via the medical staff is that abortion is the proper response, then we are legitimately into dark ethical territory where humans are considered problems and there are solutions to those problems. And yes solutions here should be heard as an echo to the Nazis.

Again, to be clear, the death camp echo should be heard ONLY INSOFAR AS, (ONLY IN THE DEGREE TO WHICH) the decision to abort is based on a non-sympathetic, non-reflective, non-empathetic moment. i.e. There is no thought at all that the parents/mother should keep the child. If it’s automatically to be aborted, that is beginning of evil in my opinion.

Published in: on September 10, 2008 at 12:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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