There is some buzz recently about a lawmaker in Louisiana, John LaBruzzo, who is proposing to pay poor women to be sterilized. His logic seems naively reminiscent of Thomas Malthus. It any case, I will admit that I’m generally skeptical of the efficacy of these sorts of programs. But I think government sponsored eugenical projects are I think besides the point and miss the bigger picture.
2 years ago I reviewed a paper by Armand Leroi, The future of neo-eugenics. 2 years is ages in genome-time; it keeps getting cheaper. Notwithstanding the current low returns on investment in the attempts to ascertain the genetic components underlying many complex traits such as schizophrenia, there are still plenty of large effect traits which tests can pick up. And they are getting cheaper and cheaper.
Combined with the legality of abortion, and facts such as the very high rates of termination for fetuses which come up positive for something like Down Syndrome, I think there is something to talk about. This isn’t because the government is demanding that these women abort their fetuses. They’re making a quality of life choice. Granted, one can contend that a human born with Down Syndrome leads a relatively unfulfilled life, so it need not be framed as a self-interested choice on the part of a woman and her partner. But this presupposes a normative outlook about what the Good Life is. Whose lives are not worth living after all? Whose miseries are too great to take breath? Most people in the United States might officially give precedence to the will of god, but in practical day to day reality is the choice of individual humans.
Right now the number of Down Syndrome children is actually relatively stable. Later age of median pregnancy means that more women are giving birth to these children, even though most women who test positive abort. And right now most women who are tested tend to be older as well. But in the near future reproductive choice, and our standards as to who is Good Enough to live, will be put into a much sharper focus. Screening technologies will become cheaper and efficacious to the point of triviality. The ROI will also increase as we know more and more about the genetic factors which presuppose individuals toward particular traits. Note my relatively disease-free terminology here. Right now we thinking of genetic screening primarily in the context of disease, but note that there is some ambiguity to what a disease is on the margins, and, tests produced originally to ascertain susceptibilities to disease can easily to utilized to check for a host of phenotypes. The tools and techniques of cosmetic surgery are simply a subset of those of reconstructive surgery.
John LaBruzzo is notable only for his relatively impolitic tack on these issues. It is easy to hold the likes of him up as the poster child for the new eugenics and what good people of Moral Fiber and Correct Thought should abhor, but he’s really a marginal outlier. Genetic decisions will be made in the bedroom well before they ever get to the boardroom or legislature. They will be made through the collective choices of many individuals, not through government fiat. At least for now.* Eugenical thought is bubbling in the background and suffusing the Zeitgeist. No one dare call it eugenics. It is “personal genomics.” The possible connection to reproductive choices are left unstated. Additionally, most Americans are wary of eugenics because of its associations with race and class, particularly the intersection. LaBruzzo is being called a racist naturally, and he might very well be. But eugenical thoughts are easier to express when directed at whites of a different class or culture who are acceptably Otherized. Here’s the moderate liberal blogger Kevin Drum who works for Mother Jones magazine, Sarah Palin Unplugged:
I don’t even feel right making snarky jokes about this stuff anymore. This campaign has gone seriously off the rails. I’ve never seen anything like it, but everyone is still nattering on as if this is business as usual. If it is, though, we’ve already entered the world of Idiocracy and we might as well all just give up and enjoy our super-size Slurpees while we can.
Idiocracy is of course a film predicated on dysgenic dynamics. Sarah Palin is notably fecund, as are her children it seems. You can connect the dots here. In private conversation I’ve heard plenty of people who would never express worry about the rising tide of color rant about the fertility of “white trash.”
I don’t really grant that the “new eugenics” enabled through personal genomics will be very controversial at all among White People, because I think it will be used disproportionately by White People. It will be bracketed into family planning, which is good, not eugenics, which is bad. I don’t even think that disparate impact on racial minorities will be that big a bar to the new eugenics. Consider:
The proportion of all abortions performed for white women decreased from 45 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 2004, while the proportion for Hispanics increased from 16 percent to 22 percent and the proportion for black women rose from 35 percent to 37 percent.
Around 70% of Americans are non-Hispanic white, but only 1/3 of fetuses being aborted are of non-Hispanic white women. Some pro-life groups try to exploit white guilt and flip the statistics into an argument for genocide against black people. My own impression though is that White People treat these statistics with benign neglect; reproductive rights trump race.
Here is a prominent evolutionary thinker writing about eugenics a few years back:
…First, I noticed only fleeting references to eugenics, and they were disparaging. In the 1920s and 30s, scientists from the political left as well as right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous — though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, even under the license granted by a book like this, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change. Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular. The spectre of Hitler has led some scientists to stray from ‘ought’ to ‘is’ and deny that breeding for human qualities is even possible. But if you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed and dogs for herding skill, why on earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability? Objections such as ‘These are not one-dimentional abilities’ apply equally to cows, horses and dogs, and never stopped anybody in practice.
I wonder whether, sixty years after Hitler’s death, we might at least venture to ask what is the moral difference between breeding for musical ability, and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or, why is it acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers, but not breed them? I can think of some answers, and they are good ones which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn’t the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?
This is of course Richard Dawkins.
* Many welcome universal healthcare because it implies socialized responsibility. But the flip-side of that is some element of socialized decision-making. After all, those who pay for a procedure or treatment often feel like they should have a voice in various decisions which lead to the expenditure of their resources. I suspect you should make a particular case by alluding to public health and hygiene.