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Congratulations, it's a Viking!

Eugenics past and future

by Ralph BraveSacramento News & Review
September 29th, 2005

Illustration by Don Button

"Congratulations, it's a Viking!" shouts a Danish sperm-bank advertisement in a recent fertility journal.

"Donor Egg Immediately Available," reads the full-page ad in The New York Times Magazine by the Genetics & IVF Institute. "These donors include many Doctoral Donors in advanced degree programs, and numerous other egg donors with special accomplishments, talents or ethnicity."

"Are you pregnant and want to know if you're having a boy or girl?" solicits the online ad for the Baby Gender Mentor home DNA-testing kit available from Pregnancy.com.

Such are but a few of the marketing enticements and procreative choices luring today's parents-to-be. While some people warn against the dangers of a new "consumer eugenics," such ads make it clear we are already considerably down that road. Whether that's a good or a bad thing depends upon one's perspective.

"Eugenics"--a word that for many sums up the evil of control of human reproduction. Over the past few years, the dark history of the eugenics movement in California and elsewhere, including Nazi Germany, has been retrieved from decades of collective amnesia. Still, few know that the most ardent U.S. eugenicists advocated 10 to 18 million Americans being sterilized. Locally, only recently have the shameful eugenics advocacy of Sacramento banker and Nazi enthusiast Charles M. Goethe and the aggressive sterilization of thousands at Stockton State Hospital been more fully revealed.

These specters of compulsory sterilization and policies to encourage breeding of the "Nordic type" have been recalled by historians and other academics, pondering what this eugenics history means for the future.

Surprisingly, or not, there is growing consensus within mainstream academia that this history contains few relevant lessons. Therefore, they urge, full steam ahead with a renewed eugenics, utilizing the new techniques available, from sperm-sorting for sex selection to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of embryos.

Well, why not?

In the narrowest sense, "eugenics" means "well-born." More broadly, the word signifies breeding based on a calculation of the best hereditary material, and constricting the ability of less-favored heredity to propagate.

The overarching lesson drawn about eugenics past by the new eugenics proponents is to avoid the least taint of coercion, protecting individual autonomy in such choices.

Still, there is something discomfiting in going "from chance to choice." Notice in the advertisements cited above that none is based on medical necessity. Instead, they reflect desires of parents to choose "superior" physical or mental traits. And we are only at the earliest stages of possible genetic choices.

How far should we go with a consumer-based eugenics? "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty," says DNA double-helix discoverer James Watson. "I think it would be great." According to mainstream bioethics, there is no reason why not, no line that can or should be drawn if this is the result of individual choices.

According to some, though, it's difficult to credibly maintain that our mass market consumerism is propelled by any autonomy worth its name. The profit and growth needs for corporate investments in eugenic-oriented technologies might require a certain utilization rate. (Still others worry that the real problem is inequitable access to genetic technology, intensifying social divisions.)

Proposals reeking of eugenics past are also resurfacing in academia. These range from calls to identify racial genetic markers with which to correlate IQ tests, to mandatory genetic testing of adolescents for certain recessive disease genes.

As more choices about the genetic traits of our progeny emerge, how will we choose?

If we believe there should be limits, we need to accept some regulatory authority intervening between prospective parents and their clinics and doctors. As eugenics historian Diane Paul writes, we would need to acknowledge that reproductive freedom does not trump every other value.

But if we believe that decisions should lie solely in individual hands, we must accept that the not-so-invisible hand of Wall Street and Madison Avenue will play a large role in these choices. "Congratulations, it's a Viking!"

There would seem to be useful lessons large and small that can be gleaned from the history of eugenics past. In 1915, when horticulturist Luther Burbank advocated "selection" for "race betterment," he was asked who should do the selecting. "That I do not know," Burbank replied. "I will leave that to some other scientist."

Whether leaving such decisions up to the individual or to someone else is the right choice depends in part upon one's take on eugenics history. But that, then, would require knowing the history.

Ralph Brave was the researcher for the exhibition Human Plants, Human Harvest: The Hidden History of California Eugenics<, created by UC Davis professor Kathryn Sylva, on display at the California State University, Sacramento, Library Gallery through October 21.



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