THE current issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine includes a portrait of Irving Fisher, a Yale economics professor in the 1920s and ’30s and a giant of his field. The author, Richard Conniff, takes note of Fisher’s prodigious professional accomplishments and his private decency in order to foreground the real subject of his article: the economist’s role as one of his era’s highest-wattage proponents of eugenics.Further on...
The American elite’s pre-World War II commitment to breeding out the “unfit” — defined variously as racial minorities, low-I.Q. whites, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the criminally inclined — is a story that defies easy stereotypes about progress and enlightenment. On the one hand, these American eugenicists tended to be WASP grandees like Fisher — ivory-tower dwellers and privileged have-mores with an obvious incentive to invent spurious theories to justify their own position.
But these same eugenicists were often political and social liberals — advocates of social reform, partisans of science, critics of stasis and reaction. “They weren’t sinister characters out of some darkly lighted noir film about Nazi sympathizers,” Conniff writes of Fisher and his peers, “but environmentalists, peace activists, fitness buffs, healthy-living enthusiasts, inventors and family men.” From Teddy Roosevelt to the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, fears about “race suicide” and “human weeds” were common among self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement.
This progressive fascination with eugenics largely ended with World War II and the horrors wrought by National Socialism. But while the West has discarded the theory of the eugenics era, the practice urged by Fisher and others — the elimination or pre-emption, through careful reproductive planning, of the weaker members of the human species — has become a more realistic possibility than it ever was in the 1920s and ’30s.
Thanks to examples like Irving Fisher, we know what the elites of a bygone era would have done with that kind of information: they would have empowered the state (and the medical establishment) to determine which fetal lives should be carried to term, and which should be culled for the good of the population as a whole.Read the rest.
That scenario is all but unimaginable in today’s political climate. But given our society’s track record with prenatal testing for Down syndrome, we also have a pretty good idea of what individuals and couples will do with comprehensive information about their unborn child’s potential prospects. In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion. It is hard to imagine that more expansive knowledge won’t lead to similar forms of prenatal selection on an ever-more-significant scale.
Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women? Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.
From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.
But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to look back and pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.
First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.
Books on abortion:
The Case for Life
The Party of Death