Life and Human Dignity

Down Syndrome and Eugenics


Roberto Rivera

Last August, there was a flurry of news and commentary over reports that “Iceland is close to becoming the first country where no-one gives birth to a child with [Down] syndrome.” We were told that “on average, just one or two children with [the] syndrome are born in Iceland each year.”

As it turns out, the principal reason these one or two children are born at all is that the procedures for identifying Down syndrome in utero aren’t infallible. As the head of prenatal diagnosis at an Icelandic hospital told CBS, “Some of them were low risk in our screening test, so we didn’t find them in our screening.”

“Find them.” It makes it sound as if the children were hiding. Actually, if they knew what was going on outside of Mommy’s womb, they would have hidden. As a “counselor” told reporters, “We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication . . . preventing suffering for the child and for the family.”

Now, let’s cut the cant right now: I’ve known plenty of people with Down syndrome—it helps that my son is autistic and these folks are his schoolmates and co-workers—and while their lives are often challenging and, in some instances, tragic, none of them appeared to be “suffering.”

As George Will wrote about his then-10-year-old-son, Jonathan, “He does not ‘suffer from’ Down syndrome. He suffers from nothing, except anxiety from the Orioles’ lousy start.”

No, what’s at work here isn’t “preventing suffering”—it’s eugenics.

Eugenics, both the word and the idea, were invented by Francis Galton, a gentleman-scientist who, among other things, discovered the uniqueness of fingerprints. By the end of the 19th century, improvements in nutrition, public health, and governance had produced a population explosion in Britain. Galton and many of his peers were troubled that the people doing the vast majority of the reproducing were the poor and lower classes. If this continued, Britain would become a nation composed of the “lesser classes” and their descendants.

Galton’s solution was what he called eugenics, a word that combines the Greek words for “well” and “born.” Galton proposed creating a “highly gifted race of men” through the use of “judicious marriages.” Those who possessed “talent,” “grace,” and “quality” would be identified and could only marry one another. Not surprisingly, in determining who possessed these characteristics, Galton fell back on standard late-Victorian prejudices: He used social standing as a proxy.

As the phrase “judicious marriages” suggests, Galton’s preferred approach was what came to be known as “positive” eugenics: improving the population by encouraging marriage and childbirth between people possessing “desirable” traits. The problem with this approach, as Galton acknowledged, was that, then as now, people don’t take kindly to interference in matters of love and marriage.

This is why eugenics took, to borrow a phrase from Alex Gibney, the “taxi to the dark side,” and embraced coercion and even violence. As Adam Cohen notes in his book, “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,” eugenicists “believed philanthropy was a threat to the human race.” They complained that charities “deliberately selected the half-starved, the diseased, the criminals, and enabled them to exist and propagate.” They even “opposed the widespread use of vaccinations, another intervention that, as they saw it, helped people survive who had been targeted by nature for illness and death.”

Someone who understood this logic was Galton’s cousin, Charles Darwin. In his 1871 book, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex,” he wrote that “There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution, would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.” This allowed “weak members of civilized societies” to “propagate their kind,” a result he called “highly injurious to the race of man.”

Still, it would be unfair to call Darwin a eugenicist or even a “social Darwinist.” As Cohen tells us, “Darwin believed humans could not ‘check our sympathy,’ even at the urging of ‘hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.’” Whatever “contingent benefit” refusing to help the poor might confer, it would be accompanied by “a certain and great present evil.”

The problem, apart from the fact that natural selection doesn’t explain the origins of “sympathy” and the “noblest part of our nature,” was that Darwin’s contemporaries and their successors weren’t nearly as sentimental as he was.

This was especially true in the United States. On this side of the Atlantic, the aim was to prevent, by any means necessary, marriage and childbirth among those deemed “undesirable.” “Any means” meant just that: Where persuasion wouldn’t suffice―and of course it rarely did―then coercion would be employed. Coercive means could include anything from prohibiting marriage between the “fit” and the “unfit” to sterilization of the “unfit” to even euthanasia of those believed to be carrying what eugenicists called defective “germ plasm.”

Just as expansive as their choice of means was their definition of what it meant to be “unfit.” New York gave serious consideration to a law that, arguably, would have prohibited marriage between people who wore glasses and those who didn’t. Other proposed measures would have sterilized and/or quarantined people on account of their relatives’ “defects.”

Eventually, the most “popular” method was compulsory sterilization. In the first seven decades of the 20th century, more than 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized because those with power believed that they were “feebleminded” or otherwise posed a threat to the “health” of the American race.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because, as books such as “War Against the Weak” by Edwin Black and “Hitler’s American Model” by James Q. Whitman document, the demonic ideas about “race hygiene” that the Third Reich put into practice were, at least initially, clearly marked “Made with (White) Pride in the USA.”

At the Nuremburg Trials, “Otto Hofmann, the head of the SS Race and Settlement Office, one of the Nazis charged with mass sterilization, defended himself in part by referring to the American states that had adopted eugenic sterilization law.” He also quoted from the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Buck v. Bell, which upheld compulsory sterilization.

Hofmann quoted Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who, in his majority opinion, wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

It didn’t matter that Carrie Buck, the young woman whose fate was being decided wasn’t an “imbecile.” (She was of at least average intelligence.) Nor did it matter that, even then, the idea that a propensity to crime was somehow inheritable was unproven. The “problem” didn’t lie with Buck or the other victims of eugenics—it lay with the eugenicists themselves. Specifically, it lay with a combination of misanthropy, especially in Holmes’ case, and a misplaced confidence in their ability to “scientifically” manage humanity’s affairs.

In other words, hard as this is to believe, they were trying to create a kind of utopia. Not my kind of utopia, mind you—this is literally true since people who look like me had no place in their vision of a better America—but a utopia, nonetheless. But as the philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

Without exception, every attempt to create a society free from whatever those in power deem intolerable—whether it’s those with defective “germ plasm” in the United States, “degenerates,” the disabled, and, of course, Jews in Nazi Germany, or “kulaks” in Stalin’s USSR—leaves a train of victims in its wake.

And that brings me back to “Down syndrome free” Iceland. Even the most passing acquaintance of people with Down syndrome and their families—or other people with intellectual disabilities and their families—leaves you with the inescapable conclusion that the only suffering we’re seeking to avoid is that of the adults.

How else do you explain the phenomenon of doctors being sued for the “wrongful birth” of a child with disabilities? Children with Down syndrome or other disabilities represent an unacceptable impingement on their potential parents’ freedom: They have to work harder at being good parents and they don’t even get to show off with a “My Child is an Honor Roll Student at . . .” bumper sticker.

There’s no plausible claim of “compassion,” however misguided, at work here: Down syndrome isn’t Tay-Sachs, which condemns its victims to an excruciating death at a young age. People with Down syndrome can live reasonably long and happy lives if given a chance. What stands in their way isn’t their condition; it’s our forgetting whose life we’re talking about here.

The people who were all verklempt at the prospect of a “Down syndrome free” Iceland are every bit the eugenicists as the people who sterilized Carrie Buck. They, like Victorian eugenicists, are willing to withhold food, shelter, medical care, and, most of all, life from those they believe have “been targeted by nature for illness and death.”

If that sounds harsh, well, it is. It’s also true. If I were a fetus, I’d hide, too.


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