Genetics refers to that branch of biology that focuses on the mechanisms of heredity. Scientific knowledge about those mechanisms is rapidly increasing as we continue to uncover greater detail about the human genome. As we learn more and gain more control over the mechanism of heredity, the controversy surrounding genetics technology will increasingly take center stage in our politics. We may see government efforts to regulate or ban certain technologies or, more ominously, government efforts to coerce people to “improve the stock.” In that regard, the tragic experience with eugenics in the 20th century in Western Europe and the United States is a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

By 1900, eugenics had caught the popular imagination. The focus soon shifted, however, from encouraging the eugenic breeding of the best to halting the dysgenic breeding of the worst. The worst soon came to refer to the feebleminded, which included alcoholics, epileptics, and criminals, as well as the mentally retarded. Much of the American enthusiasm for eugenics stemmed from anti‐​immigrant feeling. At a time of rapid immigration from eastern and southern Europe, it was easy to encourage a sense of paranoia that the nation’s supposedly better Anglo‐​Saxon stock was being diluted. Eugenic arguments provided a convenient cover for those who wished to restrict immigration for racist reasons. The Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 was a direct result of eugenics campaigning. For the next 20 years, it consigned many desperate European emigrants to a worse fate by denying them a new home in the United States, and it remained on the books unamended for 40 years.

Restrictive immigration was not the only legal success for the eugenists. By 1911, six states had enacted laws allowing the forced sterilization of the mentally unfit. Six years later, another nine states had joined them. Although at first the Supreme Court threw out many of these sterilization laws, in 1927, it changed its position; in Buck v. Bell, the Court ruled that the commonwealth of Virginia could sterilize Carrie Buck, a 17‐​year‐​old girl committed to a colony for epileptics and the feeble‐​minded in Lynchburg, where she lived with her daughter, Vivian. After a cursory examination, Vivian, who was 7 months old, was declared an imbecile, and Carrie was ordered to be sterilized. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a consistent supporter of every government intrusion into private life, famously put it in his judgment, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Virginia continued to sterilize the mentally handicapped into the 1970s. In America, a bastion of individual liberty, more than 100,000 people were sterilized for feeble‐​mindedness, in keeping with more than 30 state and federal laws passed between 1910 and 1935.

The governments of other countries also enthusiastically sterilized the allegedly unfit. Sweden sterilized 60,000. Canada, Norway, Finland, Estonia, and Iceland all enacted coercive sterilization laws. In the 1930s, Germany, most notoriously, first sterilized 400,000 people and in many cases followed this procedure with their murder. In just 18 months in the Second World War, 70,000 already sterilized German psychiatric patients were gassed just to free hospital beds for wounded soldiers. Britain, almost alone among Protestant industrial countries, never passed a eugenics law (i.e., a law allowing the government to interfere in the individual’s right to procreate). There was never a British law preventing marriage of the mentally deficient, and there was never a British law allowing compulsory sterilization by the state on the grounds of feeble‐​mindedness. Why was Britain able to resist the direction in which the rest of the world was moving?

British scientists were certainly not responsible for Britain’s decision to forego this kind of legislation. Scientists like to tell themselves today that eugenics was always seen as a “pseudoscience,” frowned on by true scientists, but there is little in the written record to support this notion. Most scientists welcomed the flattery of being treated as experts in a new technocracy. They were perpetually urging immediate action by the government. Nor could the socialists claim credit. Although the Labor Party opposed eugenics by the 1930s, the socialist movement in general provided much of the intellectual ammunition for eugenics before that. The works of H. G. Wells are especially rich in juicy quotes: “The swarms of black, and brown, and dirty white, and yellow people …will have to go.” Socialists, embracing a belief in public planning and ready to confer on the state a position of blanket power over the individual, were ready‐​made for the eugenic message.

Conservatives and Liberals also were enthusiastic for this kind of legislation. Arthur Balfour, ex‐​prime minister, chaired the first International Eugenics Conference in London in 1912, and the sponsoring vice presidents included the Lord of Chief Justice and Winston Churchill. As Churchill put it, “the multiplication of the feebleminded” constituted “a very terrible danger to the race.”

One man deserves to be singled out for mounting Parliamentary opposition to the eugenics movement, especially with respect to a draconian bill put forward in 1918: the radical libertarian MP named Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood had been elected to Parliament in the Liberal landslide of 1906, but later joined the Labor Party and retired to the House of Lords in 1942. Wedgwood charged that the Eugenics Society was trying “to breed up the working class as though they were cattle.” But his main objection was on the grounds of individual liberty. He was appalled that this bill gave the state powers to take a child from its own home by force and granted policemen the duty to act on reports from members of the public that somebody was feeble‐​minded. His motive was not social justice, but individual liberty, and he was joined by Tory libertarians such as Lord Robert Cecil. Their common cause was that of the individual against the state.

The clause in the eugenics bill that truly appalled Wedgwood was the one that stated it be “desirable in the interests of the community that [the feeble‐​minded] should be deprived of the opportunity of procreating children.” This statement was, in Wedgwood’s word, “the most abominable thing ever suggested” and in no way reflected “the care for the liberty of the subject [nor] the protection of the individual against the state that we have a right to expect form a Liberal Administration.” His attack was so effective that the government withdrew the bill, and when it was represented in the following year, it was much watered down. Wedgwood had identified the central flaw in the whole eugenic project: not that it was based on faulty science, nor that it was impractical, but that it was fundamentally oppressive and cruel because it employed the full power of the state against the rights of the individual.

As our knowledge of the human genome increases, genetic screening and germ‐​line engineering—the manipulation of the genetics of egg or sperm to alter their issue—will become increasingly viable in the decades to come. Already calls for government restriction abound—some based quite openly on opposition to extending the human lifespan. One of the most quoted bioethicists of our time, Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center, has said: “The worst possible way to resolve [the question of life extension] is to leave it up to individual choice. There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.”

Those with a more conventional view of social goods recognize that if government were to ban those technologies, it would doom many people to avoidable suffering. It would be just as cruel to outlaw screening or genetic engineering as to make them compulsory. These decisions are for the individual, not ones that can safely be left to theocrats or technocrats.

There is a world of difference between genetic screening and what the eugenists called for in their heyday, and it lies in this: Voluntary genetic screening is about giving private individuals private choices on private criteria, whereas eugenics was about nationalizing that decision to make people breed not for themselves, but for the state.

Many modern accounts of the history of eugenics discuss it in terms of the dangers of allowing science, genetics especially, to go uncontrolled. It is much more an example of permitting government the discretionary powers associated with a totalitarian state.

Further Readings

Avise, John C. The Hope, Hype and Reality of Genetic Engineering. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Bailey, Ronald. Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005.

Kühl, Stefan. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ridley, Matt. Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. New York: HarperPerennial, 2000.

Rosen, Christine. Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wedgwood, C. V. The Last of the Radicals, Josiah Wedgwood, MP. London: Cape, 1951.

Matt Ridley
Originally published
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