Confronting the New Eugenics

Though we often encounter the phrase “new eugenics,” there really is nothing new about the eugenicist movement we are facing today. It has the same principles eugenics has always had, since even before Sir Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” in the nineteenth century. Evil is not and cannot ever be actually creative, and so there is no real novelty to be found here.

What we do have is a pushing of eugenicist logic further underground, so to speak, which makes it more difficult to recognize and thus more difficult to argue against. One of the most difficult things to do is argue with a position that does not even understand itself.

The so-called new eugenics does not really recognize itself as such, and this therefore makes the new eugenics more pernicious and sinister than the eugenicist movements which openly proclaimed themselves this way. So what we are facing, insofar as it is new, is the same logic as always, just further entangled in the logic of our culture. Thus, for most people, to call this logic eugenicist is hyperbolic and naïve, because this is simply the way things are.

Before we know how to respond to anything, it is helpful to understand the logic of it. Naming a thing—and I think, especially something evil—gives us a certain authority over it. Bringing things into the open, shining the light of truth of them, can only ever be an action for and to the good. And so digging into the logic can only help us in any quest to respond to the subtle eugenicist logic we see and experience all the time in our culture. With that in mind, I begin with a longish quotation from G.K. Chesterton. In his book Orthodoxy, he writes:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.

The logic of eugenics is not, as we might first think, a vice let loose, but rather a virtue let loose, and as such it causes, as Chesterton says, more terrible damage. Our better angels, when perverted, always become our most terrible demons.

What then is eugenics? As defined by Sir Francis Galton, it is a set of practices that aim to improve the quality (both genetic and not) of the human population. So let us start here: why wouldn’t we want to improve the human population? Wouldn’t we want to make everyone’s lives better? In fact, does not Christianity call us to better ourselves and the world as much as possible? Wouldn’t that include the very fabric of humanity? Should we not try to avoid suffering for as many people as we possibly can, including, perhaps, those who are not yet born?

And here I come to my thesis: eugenics—especially the contemporary form it takes—is indeed the Christian virtue of compassion gone mad, isolated from its proper home, the Church, and run wild doing untold damage. Because: how could any sane or decent person oppose compassion? This is of course the reaction when one starts to question eugenicist logic, and then one is very easily painted as a monster who lacks compassion, which is about an ironic of a reversal as there could be.

If eugenics is compassion perverted, then, we might ask, perverted by what? To answer this, let us look at compassion as a virtue first: compassion means literally, to suffer with. It comes to English from Latin: com—with, passio, to suffer. So, literally, to have compassion for someone else is to suffer with that person. This of course means that there is someone suffering and that the person who wishes to participate in the virtue of compassion must then also suffer. To desire to be compassionate, is then a desire to suffer with or on behalf of someone else.

True compassion then calls for us willingly to suffer, in the knowledge that suffering will always be a feature of our existence in this vale of tears, that somehow, suffering with another is good and sharing the other’s burden makes the experience more bearable for that person. To be compassionate is then in truth, a willingness to suffer. The reader will of course notice that I have just used the word suffering a great deal. That is on purpose, because it is a reality of our lives that none of us—and certainly not the culture at large—really likes facing. And yet it is a constant: always has been and always will be.

So, if this is compassion—that is, the willingness to suffer with—what is compassion perverted? Well, it is not willingness to suffer, but rather the desire to do away with suffering completely. This is the root of any eugenicist logic, and again, notice how seductive and persuasive this logic is: the elimination of all suffering! Who could be against such a thing? But take a closer look and notice the switch in emphasis that takes place: compassion rightly ordered is about the suffering person, the center of true compassion is an-other.

The center of perverted compassion is not the suffering person, but rather the person who wishes to be compassionate: you—person who wishes to be compassionate—you do not have to suffer if no one has to suffer. Modern compassion, perverted compassion, does not wish to alleviate suffering by sharing the burden, rather it wishes to eliminate suffering so that we do not have to be compassionate, which means of course, that we do not have to suffer.

This perverted and isolated compassion is then I think the root of any eugenicist movement, contemporary or otherwise. Isolated from what? one might ask. Well, isolated, as Chesterton so helpfully describes for us, from the scheme of Christianity, from the other virtues, and, I would add, from the real world—an addition with which I believe Chesterton would agree. It is arguable—and I think an objective look at history would find me in the right here—that since this eugenicist logic was unleashed on the world in earnest around the eighteenth century, we have caused more suffering than ever before and have therefore come not one inch closer to the supposedly noble goal of the elimination of all suffering.

And that is because, amongst many other reasons, it has absolutely no basis in the world in which we inhabit. Christians and those who understand reality to have a theological and/or metaphysical structure are often dismissed as being stupid or naïve, but we are in fact the realists—we see reality clearly and accept what is given, rather than being saturated with the alchemic desire to transform the world into something we deem to be right.

So, back to eugenics and its logic of perverse compassion. In the world in which we actually live, that is, the world in which suffering and pain seem to be always present, what form does this desire to eliminate all suffering take? It takes the form of control, and specifically, control of all that which one perceive to be one’s inferior in one way or another. I will return to this latter point—for now let me concentrate on what I mean by control.

There is actually no way to avoid suffering, on an individual or a general level, history has shown us that much. There is also no way to avoid encountering others’ suffering, particularly in those that one loves. This specifically, I think, is one of the reasons the eugenicist logic is so seductive: true compassion is difficult because somehow it is worse to see those we love suffer and have to enter into that without trying to resolve or fix it, rather than just suffering on our own.

To see suffering and accept it, to be unable to do anything about it—that is a lot to endure. So what do we do? We try to control it. But we cannot, not really, and so we start to try to control the circumstances around which suffering could possibly take place or must be endured, and thus our desire to eliminate suffering—our desire to be compassionate—leads to things like Eugenics Boards and the forced sterilization of women “for their own good”. If we never let the circumstances suffering could take place in arise, then we never have to see suffering—and therefore be willing to suffer with—in the first place. Or so the logic would have it.

So we exercise control. In the case of eugenics, it was decided by Sir Francis Galton, his cousin Charles Darwin, and many others of a similar stature in their time, that this control should and would be exercised on those populations of humanity who lived lives very different from themselves, and therefore, according to them, full of suffering and ills which the world would be better for not having in it.

Galton was in particular not a fan of Irish, Jewish, and Black people; Darwin for his part quotes W.R. Greg in The Descent of Man, his companion piece to On the Origin of Species, that they posed an obstacle for civilized society since “the fact that the very poor and reckless, who are often degraded by vice almost invariably marry early . . . and produce within a given period not only a greater number of generations, but . . . [also] many more children.” As opposed, of course, to the more civilized Englishmen who had less children later in life. Darwin was however consoled by “some checks to this downward tendency. We have seen the intemperate suffer from a high rate of mortality, and the extremely profligate have few offspring.” All this from the father of modern biology.

For about a century and a half eugenics was seen as a perfectly appropriate worldview to hold, and Galton’s and Darwin’s proposals about controlling the human population by dictating who could and could not have children became quite popular, even fashionable, and led directly to such horrors as the Holocaust, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, which practiced forced sterilization on poor people—Black and white—and the infamous Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a statute in the state of Virginia permitting compulsory sterilization of the unfit was in fact lawful.

From this case we receive the ruling from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., in which he proclaims, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover the Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The imbecile in question was a 21 year-old woman named Carrie Buck, who had been proclaimed by her adopted relatives—one of whom raped her, which is how she became pregnant in the first place—and a doctor to be “feeble-minded,” whatever that means.

Now, many people would respond to my bringing up these examples that we as a society have moved beyond such horrors, and that we “know better”. I disagree. We have not moved beyond, and I think we actually know worse. The logic of eugenics is still very much with us, and, as I wrote above, with us in ways that are more difficult to recognize. That is to say, it hides itself more artfully than ever before, and because of that, it is more dangerous.

We can take some perhaps more obvious examples first. Recently (2017), Iceland proclaimed that it would soon be the first country in the world where no children with Down’s Syndrome would be born. For the country’s part, this seemed to be a point of pride, and many people met the proclamation with laudatory tones rather than the abject horror with which any actually compassionate person would meet such a statement.

Because, as we all know, there is no cure for Down’s Syndrome—Iceland was not telling the world that it had come up with a therapy, but rather that it was destroying the children who happened to be conceived with an extra copy of chromosome 21. And to the objection that such an action is one of compassion for either child or mother, my response would be that all this does is push the suffering underground, for now the child is dead and the parents live with this knowledge. But they are not supposed to be grieving because this action was for the good of everyone involved, wasn’t it?

Another fairly obvious example: Planned Parenthood—which only in the summer of 2020 finally renounced its openly eugenicist and racist founder, Margaret Sanger. Founded supposedly to help women, Sanger was quite clear in her intent to control the population of those groups of people she felt were not the right kind of contributors to society, which were mostly Black people, but poor white people as well. Sanger wished to “Apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring” (from “My Way to Peace,” Jan. 17, 1932. Margaret Sanger Papers). First question: who gets to decide whose progeny is “tainted?”

There are however, less obvious versions of eugenicist logic in our culture: euthanasia seems to me another prime example of trying to avoid the fact of suffering by control over that which we have not been given control. Going to African countries and giving them aid only if those countries also accept that women will be given some form of birth control as part of the aid is also eugenicist in its logic (it is also pretty much the definition of colonialism). Much of modern medicine is not aimed at healing the body—which often requires suffering of one kind or another—but rather at avoiding the reality of suffering altogether.

But health and avoidance of suffering are not at all the same thing—in fact the latter will inevitably lead to a state of un-health. In fact, one of the factors leading to the opioid crisis in America is that the medical view of pain switched from something that should be managed, but might ultimately make someone stronger, to viewing pain as something no one should ever experience (on America’s opioid epidemic, see Sam Quinones’s excellent Dreamland). But again: this is impossible. And so instead of dealing with pain in the moment—instead of suffering when suffering is asked of us, and instead of entering into others’ suffering as best we can—we prescribe pills, we push it away, we defer it so that we do not have to see it. This is, I emphasize, the complete perversion of compassion.

Once we identify the logic of eugenics, the more we recognize it is woven rather seamlessly into our culture. But again, in reality, suffering is not eliminable, and so what does a eugenicist approach to reality do? If we cannot eliminate suffering then we eliminate the one who suffers. There is no elimination of suffering, there is only elimination of people. So eugenicist logic is after all a murderous impulse, but murderous because compassionate, if perversely so.

I mentioned above that this perverse compassion that is eugenics takes the form of control, specifically of the superior over the inferior. I use these terms to denote societal power rather than anything intrinsic about any of the persons involved in a eugenicist exchange. How interesting though that the force of eugenicist logic, wherever it is found, is always exacted on those who have less power than the eugenicists. Minority or native populations, the poor, women, the agéd and dying, those who are not yet born—who could have less power in the worldly sense of that word? These are the groups the eugenicists wish to help by eliminating altogether.

I confess I get angry when I think about this logic and all the harm it has exacted on my sex, and so while I cannot speak directly to the experience any of the other groups I just mentioned, I will for a moment address how women bear the brunt of this eugenicist logic in a different and perhaps more immediate way than men do. Since eugenics is often aimed at controlling future generations and women are those who bear those future generations, we face this logic—often unknowingly—all the time. Rather than restructure our society in such a way that it would teach a young woman of her own dignity and a young man the same, we hand women a pill that is terribly destructive to their own bodies so that we as a culture do not have to be bothered with the inconvenience of understanding and teaching the meaning of human fruitfulness.

Rather than ordering our culture in such a way that a woman does not feel alone, abandoned, and frightened if she does get pregnant outside of marriage, we tell women to get abortions and then tell them that this act is perfectly normal, which means, of course, that they cannot and should not grieve. Rather than taking a look at why the poor are poor, we seek instead to eliminate them so we do not have to deal with their suffering. Rather than wonder why a supposedly feeble-minded girl of 21 years without a husband became pregnant in the first place, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, decided instead that she should be sterilized, an act which would alter her forever. Eugenicists do not of course eliminate suffering, as I have been arguing is after all impossible. They only displace it, so that they do not have to witness it.

It is important to see what eugenics really is so that we can respond to it intelligently. It is not simply some people telling others who can and cannot have children, who can and cannot get married. Eugenics is rather a logic of control: it wishes to control reality such that we never have to encounter it in all its messiness—which of course includes suffering, but we might remember it also includes beauty and joy as well.

Christians must then be realists. By this I mean, deal with and in reality, and not some utopic and fantastical vision thereof. I wrote above that those who think reality is in some sense structured around good and evil are often regarded as naïve or even stupid. But who really is stupid? The person who thinks all suffering can be eliminated despite thousands of years of evidence to the contrary, or the person who sits with the suffering other and alleviates her suffering by sharing in it? This latter actor—the Christian actor—is dealing with reality as it is actually given, and not some fantasy that only he controls.

Christians are the realists, and they are so because they know reality is good, not in spite of it. Reality as it is given, as we receive it, is good; it is not some neutral substrate we must try to make good ourselves. Indeed it is in understanding reality as good that we also can see evil more clearly. If we were cynics, if we would not see the goodness of the world, then what is evil, what is wrong, would not stick out so clearly, be so obviously a wound that is in need of healing. And because we see what is wrong with clearer vision, because we see and sit with suffering—and most importantly, the suffering person—we can actually attend to the wound, rather than spending our time trying to invent some fantasy in which wounds never occur.

Featured Image: Political Street Art, Resistencia, Argentina; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.


Rachel Coleman

Rachel Coleman is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Assumption University in Worcester, MA.

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