Portrayals of and Arguments around different Eugenic Practices: Past and Present

Natalie Ball and Gregor Wolbring

Abstract


Natalie Ball and Gregor Wolbring

Abstract

Throughout history, people with non-normative abilities have been judged. Sometimes this judgment led to positive consequences; however, for the most part these non-normative abilities were judged negatively and the carriers of such non-normative abilities experienced disabling treatment. This very judgment and its disabling consequences is one of the main areas of scholarly work within the realm of disability studies. Eugenics, the goal of finding ways to better human hereditable abilities, is one dynamic that influences the judgment of people’s abilities and the disabling consequences. This paper highlights the arguments used to justify various historical and present eugenic practices and the role of people with disabilities. The New York Times, the Globe and Mail and the Canadian Medical Association Journal were used as data sources. We furthermore contrasted the data from these sources with data from three leading disability studies journals namely Disability and Society, Review of Disability Studies and Disability Studies Quarterly. We use the historical and present time data to highlight emerging and future eugenic challenges such as human enhancement and synthetic genomics and biology for people with disabilities.

Introduction

The term eugenics is credited to Sir Francis Galton, who first mentioned the word in 1883 in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development. Galton explains why he believes the term ‘eugenics’ is so crucial:

We greatly want a brief word to express the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had. The word eugenics would sufficiently express the idea… (Galton, 1883)

He furthermore describes eugenics as the “investigation under which men of a high type are produced” (Galton, 1883) that aimed to “bring as many influences as can be reasonably employed, to cause the useful classes in the community to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation” (Galton, 1904; p. 3, italics original).This vision of eugenics is broad and extends far beyond segregation and sexual sterilization—two practices that often come to mind with mention of eugenics.

Given Galton’s vision of eugenics, there are two general ways to fulfill eugenic goals: positive eugenics and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics is aimed at increasing the number of desired phenotypic and genotypic traits within the population (Fisher, 1917). Traditionally, positive eugenics was achieved by encouraging those with desirable traits to reproduce with one another. In the future, positive eugenics might be achieved through the synthesis of the desired genome from scratch (synthetic biology) in combination with the artificial womb. Because many genes are impacted by environmental factors, elimination of environmental factors that impact genes negatively also can be seen as fitting with the aim of positive eugenics. Conversely, negative eugenics aims to prevent and eradicate ‘unwanted’ genotypic and phenotypic traits within the population (Ward, 1913). This could be achieved through prevention of procreation of people with ‘undesirable’ traits, sexually sterilizing the so-called ‘unfit’, preventing the birth of ‘undesirables’ through prenatal diagnostics of the fetus and the follow up use of selective abortion of fetuses with unwanted traits, as well as pre-implantation diagnostics of the embryo with the selection of only embryos with the desired genetic make-up. With recent advances in scientific technologies, negative eugenics may also be achieved through somatic interventions (somatic gene therapy) on the embryo and fetus level, or through germ-line intervention (germ line gene therapy) of the parents to be.

Given Galton’s understanding of eugenics, eugenic goals are not bound to the past, nor is it required that they only target those we labeled up to now as having deficiencies. Eugenic thinking can also be applied to enhance humans beyond the normal through, for example, somatic and germline genetic enhancement. The only prerequisite is that these interventions give an advantage to the beyond the normal enhanced over others and that this advantage is durable and benefits the stock in the end. The goal of eugenics has had (and continues to have) a significant impact on people with disabilities —many people with disabilities have been and are still being labeled as unfit, and various ‘impairments’ have been and are targets for prevention (Asch, 1999; Newell, 1999; Reindal, 2000). Eugenics divides society into two groups: those who have traits that are ‘desirable’ and should be passed on (commonly referred to as the ‘fit’) and those who have ‘undesirable’ traits that should not be passed on (the ‘unfit’) (Fisher, 1917; Ward, 1913). People with disabilities have been heavily targeted by eugenic practices, but have they been a part of the eugenic discourses? How does the portrayal of eugenics within disability studies line up with the portrayal of eugenics within the media?

This paper will showcase the arguments used for and against eugenics for various practices including sterilization, genetic counseling, and human enhancement. The authors wish to be clear that these arguments represent what authors from various sources have identified as being reasons for condemning or supporting eugenics and they do not necessarily represent the actual opinions of these sources. We are simply investigating and comparing the portrayal of and arguments used related to eugenics from various sources.

Methods

Six data sources were analyzed for the portrayal of any arguments for or against eugenic practices: two newspapers (The New York Times (United States) and The Globe and Mail (Canada)), one peer-reviewed medical journal (Canadian Medical Association Journal) and three peer-reviewed disability studies journals (Disability & Society (UK), Review of Disability Studies (US) and Disability Studies Quarterly (US)). The latter three sources were used so that the arguments found in the former three could be compared to arguments found from a disability studies perspective. The newspapers give a sample of how different eugenic practices were portrayed in mainstream media, whereas Canadian Medical Association journal provides a glimpse of how different eugenic practices were portrayed from an academic point of view. Finally, the three academic disability studies journals were chosen to highlight how eugenics has been portrayed from the disability perspective; these journals are well known and highly visible within disability studies. Various factors, such as the amount of time each source has been available, mean that all six sources cannot be compared directly. However, the different sources may be used to show which journals or newspapers were missing certain perspectives or how certain sources focused on some arguments rather than others. The authors chose to focus on three technologies that could be used for eugenic purposes, one covering mostly the past (sexual sterilization), one covering today (genetic counseling) and one covering mostly the future (human enhancement technologies).

Articles were found using keyword searches. Sexual sterilization articles from the New York Times were found using the terms “dysgenic,” “sterilization AND bill,” “sterilization AND law,” “negative eugenics” and “of the unfit” and limiting the search to articles published before 1971. The use of search terms for the New York Times was more extensive, due to an unmanageable number of articles coming from only using the term “sterilization.” Articles from the Canadian Medical Association Journal were found using the term “sterilization” and limiting results to articles published between 1900 and 1970. Articles from the Globe and Mail were found using the term “sterilization” and were limited to articles published before 1971. Genetic counseling/testing articles from the same sources were found using the phrase “genetic counsel[l]ing” from the years 1960-2011. The phrases “genetic enhancement” and “human enhancement” were used to find articles pertaining to enhancement from the years 1960-2011.

The term “doping”— referring to the use of products to enhance one’s performance rather than for treatment purposes— was used to find articles on enhancement in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, as only six articles were found using the phrases ‘human/genetic enhancement.’ Articles were excluded if they were advertisements, a false hit (for example, the term “sterilization” producing articles about milk pasteurization), or if the technologies in question were simply mentioned, but not discussed.

Articles from Disability & Society, Disability Studies Quarterly and Review of Disability Studies were found using the search terms “eugenic,” “sterilization,” “genetic counsel[l]ing,” “genetic testing,” “human enhancement,” or “enhancement.” These journals were searched from the year they began publishing until 2011. Disability and Society was searched from 1986-2011; Disability Studies Quarterly from 2000-2011 and Review of Disability Studies from 2004-2011.

Each article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Medical Association Journal, and the three disability studies journals Disability & Society, Disability Studies Quarterly and Review of Disability were then examined for arguments supporting or refuting eugenic practices. When an argument was found, the subject of the argument was identified and tagged so that the number of each type of argument could be counted. Arguments did not have to be from the perspective of the author; all arguments that were found were included, even if they were not necessarily the opinion of the author. The different subjects found that were found in arguments supporting or refuting eugenics will be discussed in depth further on, but may have included, for example, subjects like the supposed cost-benefits associated with eugenic practices, or the violation of rights that may be associated with eugenics.

Results

Sterilization

386 articles relevant to sexual sterilization were analyzed from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the New York Times, and the Globe and Mail. 130 articles were found in the Canadian Medical Association Journal from 1911-1970. Keyword searches returned 348 articles in the Globe and Mail, of which 93 articles were relevant and analyzed, spanning from 1924 to 1970. Finally, 828 articles were found in the New York Times, and 124 articles were analyzed. Of the total articles, all of which mentioned eugenic sterilization, 38% of the Canadian Medical Association Journal articles, 46% of the Globe and Mail articles and 17% of the New York Times articles contained arguments for or against sterilization. None of these articles highlighted the views of the victims of sterilizations.

Table 1
Identified reasons for using sexual sterilization from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Globe and Mail, and the New York Times (year range not actual year range search but year range of found relevant articles)

Canadian Medical Association Journal (n=130; years 1911-1965)

Globe and Mail (n=93; years 1924-1970)

New York Times (n=124; years 1909-1970)

Total

Racial degradation or stopping dysgenic trends

20 (1921-1939)

10 (1924-1969)

13 (1909-1970)

43 (1909-1970)

Unfitness is hereditary

15 (1917-1958)

4 (1968-1969)

7 (1912-1966)

26 (1912-1969)

Prevents suffering of the unfit

3 (1919-1933)

4 (1946-1969)

6 (1909-1970)

13 (1909-1970)

Improving the race or the population of a country

6 (1919-1965)

3 (1934-1962)

7 (1909-1970)

16 (1909-1970)

Saving money or being more cost-effective

10 (1911-1936)

5 (1936-1970)

4 (1912-1932)

19 (1911-1970)

Achieving the 'perfect' or customized human

1 (1919)

1 (1950)

3 (1913-1931)

5 (1913-1950)

Lowering crime

5 (1926-1936)

3 (1934-1967)

3 (1912-1934)

11 (1912-1967)

Protecting society from the unfit

9 (1921-1947)

8 (1924-1945)

3 (1913-1932)

20 (1913-1947)

Lowering rates of disease

10 (1919-1952)

5 (1950-1969)

5 (1930-1936)

20 (1919-1969)

Protecting children from having unfit parents

2 (1934-1939)

3 (1967-1969)

1 (1934)

6 (1934-1969)


Table 2
Identified reasons against sterilization from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Globe and Mail, and the New York Times (year range not actual year range search but year range of found relevant articles).

Canadian Medical Association Journal (n=130; years 1927-1955)

Globe and Mail (n=93; years 1924-1970)

New York Times (n=163; years 1913-1941)

Total

Sterilization is immoral or sacrilegious

0

8 (1924-1964)

4 (1933-1940)

12 (1924-1964)

Sterilization is unnatural

0

2 (1936-1938)

0

2 (1936-1938)

Violation of the rights of those affected

1 (1927)

2 (1952-1969)

1 (1913)

4 (1913-1969)

Cruel punishment for the unfit

0

4 (1940-1970)

1 (1914)

5 (1914-1970)

Sterilization is discriminatory or causes discrimination

1 (1955)

1 (1969)

1 (1942)

3 (1942-1969)

The birth of ‘normal’ people could be prevented

0

0

3 (1935-1936)

3 (1935-1936)

Not enough is known about heredity

2 (1931-1933)

0

5 (1912-1941)

7 (1912-1941)

Those with control over sterilization may abuse their power

1 (1932)

0

2 (1933-1934)

3 (1932-1934)

There should be a greater focus on the environmental impacts on different traits

5 (1911-1933)

4 (1945-1969)

2 (1912-1941)

11 (1911-1969)

The value of sterilization has not been sufficiently proven

12 (1927-1947)

1 (1940)

2 (1934-1940)

16 (1927-1947)


Genetic Counseling and Genetic Testing

In the Canadian Medical Association Journal, we found 177 articles total, covering the years from 1960-2011. 35 articles were suitable to be analyzed, and 20 or 57% of the articles had arguments within them. We found a total of 362 articles in the Globe and Mail that had “genetic counsel[l]ing” in the article, covering the years from 1960-2011. Of these, 68 articles were found to fit the criteria to be analyzed and n=33 or 49% of the articles contained an argument for or against genetic counseling. For the New York Times, we found 306 articles total covering the years from 1960-2011, of which 84 were analyzed and 37 or 44% of the articles highlighted arguments that were for or against the use of genetic counseling or genetic testing. Only eight of the 187 articles analyzed from these sources were (at least partially) from the perspective of a disabled person or a disability activist.

Table 3
Identified reasons for using genetic counseling and testing from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the Globe and Mail, and the New York Times (year range not actual year range search but year range of found relevant articles).

Canadian Medical Association Journal (n=35; years 1968-2009)

Globe and Mail (n=68; years 1964-2007)

New York Times (n=84; years 1964-2010)

Total

Stopping racial degradation or dysgenic trends

1 (1968)

2 (1964-1965)

4 (1964-1998)

7 (1964-1998)

Prevents suffering

7 (1968-2008)

8 (1968-2007)

18 (1964-2010)

33 (1964-2010)

Improving the race or the population of a country

3 (1968-1996)

0

0

3 (1968-1996)

Saving money or being more cost-effectivet

7 (1974-2009)

7 (1968-1996)

6 (1975-2010)

20 (1968-2010)

Achieving the ‘perfect’ child or human being

2 (1979-1993)

4 (1973-1994)

5 (1974-2010)

11 (1973-2010)

Protecting society from the unfit

1 (1968)

1 (1996)

0

2 (1968-1996)

Lowering or eliminating disease on a population level

5 (1978-1996)

13 (1963-2007)

9 (1968-2010)

27 (1963-2010)

Can be used to keep up with or beat competition

0

0

1 (1985)

1 (1985)