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Eugenics: Historical Practice to Present Day Technology

by Dr. Joseph Stramondo

Sir Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883 to refer to the belief that the biological features and capabilities of human beings could be improved by selective breeding, similar to how domesticated animals are bred. The basic idea was for people with traits considered “desirable” to partner with each other to pass on those traits, and for people with traits considered “undesirable” traits to not pass them on at all through reproduction. From its inception, the eugenics movement targeted those who were poor, non-white, and disabled as the carriers of so-called undesirable traits.

Eugenics was rooted in ideologies of classism, racism, and ableism, all of which were the foundation of a range of human rights abuses such as chattel slavery and settler colonialism. But eugenics attempted to legitimize bigotry by framing it in the language of a “new” pseudoscience – rather than religion as was sometimes done in the past. Through this supposedly scientific rationale, the international eugenics movement established a variety of practices that were aimed at ensuring that the correct (i.e. wealthy, white, non-disabled) people were encouraged to reproduce while others were discouraged and sometimes even forced to not have children. This included the practice of forced sterilization, which was common in the United States after the 1927 Supreme Court Buck Vs. Bell decision in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously declared “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Eventually, explicit political support of the eugenics movement fell out of fashion when it became clear that this way of thinking was at the heart of organized mass murder under the Nazi T4 program, which killed over 70,000 disabled people between 1940 and 1941.   

While few members of polite society would now openly endorse the coercive eugenics of this earlier time, disabled people are still sometimes sterilized without their consent.  For instance, in his book Brilliant Imperfection, Eli Clare places the 2007 Ashley X case into the context of the United States’ eugenic past.  In this case, the parents of an intellectually disabled child chose to surgically remove her breast buds, attenuate her growth with high doses of hormones, and take away her reproductive abilities with a full hysterectomy. Clare alternates between imagining what it was like for Carrie Buck, of the infamous Buck V. Bell case, to face her own forced sterilization as the resident of an institution and reflecting upon why Ashley’s parents and doctors chose to remove her uterus without consent.

And just this year, it came to light that pop star Britney Spears, who was under conservatorship of her father, was forced to keep an unwanted form of birth control so that she could not become pregnant. The supposed justification? Spears’ history of mental illness. This sort of restriction of reproductive rights is quite common for people who are intellectually disabled or otherwise neurodivergent. So, it is not unreasonable to see Spears’ case as a contemporary example of eugenic logic used to take away reproductive capacity based on disability. 

While actions like these have become less common, the attitude that the existence of disabled people is a public burden and we ought to make efforts to remove them from public life remains exceedingly common. For example, while he was running for Mayor of New York City, Andrew Yang suggested that unhoused disabled people be institutionalized so that they do not adversely impact tourism. Such comments must be understood in the historical context of the eugenics movement, which emphasized the ways in which the presence of certain “undesirable” people in the social milieu burdened or even directly harmed everyone else.

This attitude toward disabled people can even motivate everyday people to have sympathy toward the most heinous acts.  For example, in 2016, the mother and godmother of Alex Spourdalakis, an autistic boy, were released from prison after admitting they killed him. The judge showed leniency and sentenced them to only the 3 years they had served during the trial because of the eugenic mindset that caring for Alex had supposedly been so burdensome that they had been driven to murder him.  Such an outcome would be unthinkable if the murdered boy had been non-disabled.

It is this ubiquitous attitude toward disability and disabled people that also motivates the development of many advanced reproductive technologies (ARTs). During the 1990s and 2000s, fetal ultrasound and a variety of genetic tests became commonplace for diagnosing disability during pregnancy, giving women and couples the option to terminate pregnancies that would result in a disabled child. More recently, methods of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) were developed so that more “desirable” embryos could be identified, selected, and implanted during the In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) process.  Of course, it would be absurd and offensive to compare the use of these technologies to forced sterilizations and murder.  Nevertheless, it is deeply troubling that ARTs are so universally accepted and even celebrated, given that they were undeniably developed to avoid the existence of disabled people who the public fear would otherwise place a burden on both families and society at large.   

It is sometimes claimed that these technologies are actually neutral and were just developed to give parents greater autonomy over their reproductive process and they are not in themselves expressive of any particular attitude regarding disability. But anyone who wishes to use ARTs to do something other than avoid the alleged burden of disability is meant with resistance. In 2002, Candace McCullough and Sharon Duchesneau, created a powerful backlash both within the mainstream media and the scholarly literature when they selected a Deaf sperm donor for the conception of their son via artificial insemination.

We can be nearly certain that the same will be true for new technologies that are now on the horizon. Technology known as CRISPR has been developed that can edit DNA within an organism’s cells. Thus far, it has been used to research pharmaceuticals that may be able to treat a range of diseases, including cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and cancer, by altering a person’s DNA. However, it is likely that, in the not too distant future, CRISPR will be used to develop new ARTs that can alter the genes of embryos or fetuses. We can imagine that potential parents that want to use CRISPR to deliberately create disabled offspring would not be well received. So, in some sense, it will likely narrow parental choice because how future parents are permitted to use the technology will inevitably track eugenic attitudes about what kinds of people we ought to deliberately create. 

None of this is to say that new technologies are inevitably oppressive. There is nothing about the development of new technology that binds it to eugenic ideology. In fact, technology has the potential to liberate many, including disabled people. We can support the disability community by focusing on access to assistive technologies like wheelchairs or augmentative and alternative communication devices, which are critical to their well-being and participation in society. We must understand such access to assistive technology as a basic right that is often denied to disabled people both in the U.S. and globally. In this way, we can affirm the essential equality of disabled people as being valuable members of the community, rather than burdens that ought to be prevented from ever existing.

Dr. Joseph Stramondo (he/him/his) is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs at San Diego State University. He holds graduate degrees in both philosophy and public policy studies. His current research focuses on the intersection of biomedical ethics and philosophy of disability. Namely, he is concerned with how bioethics can be reframed by centering the lived experiences of disability as a crucial source of moral knowledge that should guide clinical practice, biomedical research, and health policy. He has published scholarship on topics ranging from informed consent procedures to reproductive ethics to pandemic triage protocols to assistive neurotechnology. He also serves as the co-President of the Society for Disability Studies and is on the board of the Society for Philosophy and Disability, the Journal of Philosophy of Disability, and the Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute.