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Contemporary Genetics

Eugenics And The Ethical Issues Of Selective Breeding (1900–1945)

The term eugenics, derived from the Greek eugenes, was first coined by the English mathematician and geographer Francis Galton (1822–1911) in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883) to refer to one born "good in stock, hereditarily endowed with noble qualities." As an intellectual and social movement in the early twentieth century, eugenics came to mean, in the words of one of its strongest American supporters, Charles B. Davenport (1866–1944), "the improvement of the human race by better breeding." For both Galton and Davenport, better breeding implied improving the hereditary quality of the human species by using the known scientific principles of heredity and selective mating. Eugenics movements were prominent in many countries of Western Europe, Canada, Latin America, and Asia, though they were strongest and most long-lived in the United States, Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany (where eugenic principles became one of the cornerstones of the Nazi state). Although some eugenics movements (France, Brazil) were based on non-Mendelian concepts of heredity (most notably neo-Lamarckism, or the inheritance of acquired characteristics), the majority operated within the new Mendelian paradigm: genes were seen as discrete hereditary units, each controlling a specific adult trait (such as eye color, height, or skin color, the so-called unit-character hypothesis). Although laboratory geneticists recognized by 1920 that genes often interacted with one another (epistasis), or that most genes affected a number of traits (pleiotropy), among eugenicists the unit-character concept held sway, especially in the United States, well into the 1930s.

Unlike genetic research on laboratory organisms (mice, fruit flies, corn) eugenic research involved studying inheritance in an organism that could not be bred under controlled conditions and that had so few offspring that statistically significant results were hard to come by. As a result, eugenicists were forced to use the correlation and family pedigree methods of investigation. Correlation studies were based on choosing particular traits, such as height, that could be correlated between groups of known genetic relatedness, for example parents and offspring. Strong correlations (0.7 or higher out of a total 1.0) suggested a significant relationship, which eugenicists interpreted as demonstrating a strong genetic component. The problem with this method was that while it applied to groups, it did not provide any way of assessing the genetic influence in any individual case. Thus it was of little value in the long run for eugenical purposes, where the aim was to identify individuals who should be encouraged to breed (what was called positive eugenics) or discouraged or prevented from breeding (what was called negative eugenics). The alternative methodology, family pedigree studies, involved tracing a given trait (or traits) through numerous generations of a family line. The advantage of this method was that it provided data for a specific family, and if the family were large enough, some general predictions might be made for future reproductive decisions (especially for relatively clear-cut traits such as hemophilia or Huntington's disease). The disadvantage of the pedigree method is that reliable information on the traits was often difficult to come by, and families were often not large enough to provide statistically significant numbers. Where social and personality traits were concerned, both methods suffered from problems of defining clearly and objectively the conditions, especially complex ones such as "criminality," "alcoholism," or "feeblemindedness." In addition, neither method had any way to separate out the effects of environment (families share lifestyles, including diets, exercise, use of alcohol, and so on, as well as genes), and without knowing the details of both the genetic and environmental components, assessing the relative influence of each on the adult trait becomes exceedingly difficult. Such problems did not bother many eugenicists, however, who often made bold claims about the genetic basis of feeblemindedness (measured as scoring below 70 on the standard IQ tests of the day), alcoholism, criminality, even thalassophilia ("love of the sea").

Eugenicists did not restrict their efforts solely to research. Many were actively interested or engaged in various educational and political activities. Many wrote popular articles or gave public lectures, and there were eugenics societies in most major industrialized countries. There were several major international eugenics organizations, and three international congresses (in 1912 in London, 1921 and 1932 in New York). On the political front, eugenicists lobbied successfully in Britain for the Mental Deficiency Act (1913) and in the United States for immigration restriction based on eugenic claims and for passage of compulsory eugenic sterilization laws in over thirty states. Eugenical sterilization became a major international eugenics crusade, including in Canada, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. It is ironic that Germany was one of the last countries to adopt eugenical sterilization—only after the Nazis came to power in 1933. By that time the United States was leading the world in the total number of eugenically based compulsory sterilizations (somewhere around thirty thousand). Germany ultimately sterilized over ten times that number before sterilization evolved into euthanasia. In all cases, however, one of the main (though not the only) argument for sterilization was to prevent the individual from passing on his or her defective genes to the next generation. (Other frequently cited reasons included the claim that, especially in the case of those with mental defects, even if the child were normal the parent would not be fit to raise him or her). In most countries, but especially in the United States and Germany, the rationale for sterilization (as opposed to segregation) was economic and social efficiency. It was argued that states (and countries) were spending millions of dollars a year to house defectives who "should never have been born." The rational and efficient procedure would be to sterilize the adult defective and, where possible, return him or her to society, or at least, if they remained incarcerated, to be sure reproduction was impossible. In Germany genetically defective or other nonproductive people were referred to as "useless eaters."

The ethical as well as legal dimensions of compulsory sterilization raised many questions both at the time and in subsequent years. The eugenical sterilization laws in countries other than Germany were aimed exclusively at institutionalized persons, including the mentally ill, paupers, criminals, and the mentally defective (in other words, those who were called "feebleminded" at the time). This group often represented the poorest and most vulnerable elements of society, those least able to defend themselves. All countries' sterilization laws specified some sort of due process by which the sterilization decision was made, allowed for a family member or someone else to appear on behalf of the patient, and had some provisions for appeal. In most cases that have been studied historically, however, it appears that the proceedings of such courts or due process committees were often perfunctory. Particularly vulnerable for sterilization were children brought up for sterilization in reformatories, as they entered puberty. In some cases sterilization was a condition for being released; in others as a condition for remaining in the institution (a particularly powerful threat for families unable or unwilling to deal with a retarded or recalcitrant child at home).

The ethical problems encountered with sterilization involve both biological and moral claims. On the biological side, the evidence that many of the traits for which people were sterilized (feeblemindedness, pauperism, criminality, sexual promiscuity, aggression) had a genetic basis was circumstantial at best, nonexistent at worst. Since the methods for determining human heredity could not effectively separate out genetic from environmental effects, the claims that individuals who came from families with various defects would automatically "pass on" these traits was biologically unsound. The moral questions that arose revolved around whether sterilization was a "cruel and unusual punishment," whether tampering with reproductive capacity involved the state superseding its proscribed powers, whether the state should decide who is "defective" or not, and whether having a child was a "right" (more or less the traditional view) or a "privilege" (the eugenical view). Religious groups, especially the Catholic Church, were among the strongest critics of eugenics, especially on the sterilization issue. In 1930 a papal encyclical, "Casti connubii," specifically targeted eugenical sterilization as violating Catholic doctrine. After Nuremberg, the issue became even more clear with regard to the state's right to determine who should and who should not be parents. The line has remained a fuzzy one, however, since it is generally accepted that the state has the right to regulate matters of public health: on the grounds that reproducing defective offspring constituted a public health hazard, it was argued that eugenic sterilization fell under a public health aegis. In setting out the majority opinion in the well-known 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, which tested the constitutionality of Virginia's eugenical sterilization law, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that compulsory sterilization of genetically defective individuals could be justified by the same public health principle that required compulsory vaccination. Eugenics stood for the right of the community to safeguard itself against certain wasteful expenditures over the automatic right of the individual to bring children into the world.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Condensation to CoshContemporary Genetics - Eugenics And The Ethical Issues Of Selective Breeding (1900–1945), Dna, Genomics, And The New Ethical Dilemmas