Materialism and the Devaluing of Life – Part 2

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Rick Plasterer is a staff writer for IRD concerned particularly with domestic religious liberty.

Part 1 of this series can be read here.

Philosophical materialism, a key factor in advancing a utilitarian ethic and its turn to euthanasia, is also the driving force behind the return of eugenics, the attempt to improve the human species by encouraging persons with traits thought desirable to reproduce, while attempting to prevent persons with traits held undesirable from reproducing.

The twentieth century history of the eugenics movement was discussed by Dr. Christopher Hook of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and Associate Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, referred to in the present writer's earlier articles on his lectures concerning bioethics and the related denial of medical liberty of conscience. While eugenics is associated with Nazi Germany, it was in large measure an early twentieth century Anglo-American project, Hook said. Its roots are in Plato's Republic, which proposed breeding people for different classes. It has roots as well in the Enlightenment, with the Marquis de Condorcet speaking of the "unlimited perfectibility" of man by man.

Lamettrie's Man a Machine claimed that since men are machines, they can be re-engineered. Francis Galton coined the term "eugenics." Galton believed we should judge the "worth" of other human beings. He also believed that modern conditions "remove the action of natural selection," causing "disgenesis" (deterioration) of the human species. The "chief culprits" of disgenesis were Christianity, with its "sense of compassion for all individuals," and modern medicine, which allowed the unfit to survive and have children. Another nineteenth century Englishman, Herbert Spencer, coined the term "survival of the fittest." Hook noted that there are "two prongs of the Galtonian program … 'positive eugenics,' and 'negative eugenics.'" Positive eugenics endeavored to get persons deemed desirable to reproduce, while negative eugenics focused on preventing people deemed undesirable from reproducing.

Both of these prongs were strongly promoted in early twentieth century America. Significant portions of forced sterilization legislation in America were adopted by Germany in its forced sterilization act of 1933. Notably, the University of Heidelberg later awarded Henry H. Laughlin, a major promoter American sterilization law, with an honorary doctorate. Families with strong musical talent or with high intellectual function or performance were noted. IQ testing was developed during this time. Origins of the IQ test were "purely eugenic" in nature, Hook said.

Margaret Sanger was a strong advocate of eugenics, holding that weak persons unable to support themselves should be left to die. She surrounded herself with "some of the most outspoken white supremacists of the time." In line with this, the first clinics of Planned Parenthood were placed in areas that were heavily populated with African Americans. Theodore Roosevelt also strongly supported eugenics, as did progressives in both political parties. Other eugenics supporters John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Carnegie Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation. The Kellogg Foundation sponsored three "race betterment conferences" early in the twentieth century.

Eugenics influenced American law. "Ugly laws" in various cities said ugly persons "should not expose themselves to public view … Aesthetics was a huge part of the eugenics movement" Hook said, with photography developing in conjunction with this in the early twentieth century. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, deemed to have biologically inferior people. Forced sterilization was also enacted into the law – Hook noted that legislation was even proposed that would prevent persons with glasses from having children. Hollywood also supported eugenics. Eugenics book clubs discussed the latest eugenics books.

Leaders of the Mayo Clinic supported eugenics. These "compassionate men" were "led astray" by "bad science, which was thought to be good science," Hook said. We must be "very humble" about what science claims, particularly in support of efforts "to re-engineer the human species." He observed that one prominent eugenics supporter who helped inspire the eugenics law in Minnesota reported his success to Hitler in a letter. Hitler responded in a note congratulating him.

The Carrie Buck case in Virginia involved the first woman in Virginia selected for involuntary sterilization from a state institution. She challenged the law, supported by conservative Christians. The Supreme Court upheld the Virginia law in an 8-1 decision. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the majority decision, which said that "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

American Protestant denominations offered wholehearted support of eugenics in the early twentieth century. Only the Roman Catholic Church and conservative Protestants opposed it. Eugenics dovetailed with the objective of the Social Gospel for improving society. Harry Emerson Fosdick "promoted the 'Saints of secularism,' and was a member of the American Eugenics Society. The society promoted sermon contests, in which pastors were challenged to come up with the best sermon promoting eugenics. "Technicism," (the belief that through technology man can master all of reality) noted by Hook in an earlier presentation on bioethics, "ties in very well with the eugenics idea," he said. These ideas were well expressed in the 1933 World Fair motto, "Science finds, industry applies, man conforms."

Eugenics went into eclipse after World War II, due to its association with Nazi Germany and the mass murder perpetrated by that regime. But in the 1960s and 1970s, it began to revive, supported by some Nobel laureates. Currently bioethicists have revived the Nazi German idea of "wrongful life," and "wrongful disabilities." Geneticists are now holding that genetic counseling should involve more than simply presenting couples with choices, but should be "very directive." Genetic screening is also used to determine which human embryos will be allowed to live based on the benefit others may have from their body parts. This is the "savior sibling scenario." Thus, the principle is established "that's it's okay to allow people to live based only on their genetic utility to other people."

"Science, institutional religion, and politics" is a dangerous combination in the area of bioethics, Dr. Hook said. Scientists are not necessarily superior guides for social direction, and they "make horrible social engineers," he said. "Laissez-faire eugenics are likely to be just a problematic as the state sponsored version," Hook claimed. "Governments will always view people as something to control … [to increase] social productivity and minimize social costs." This is true despite political calls for "inclusion." "State controlled medicine is a recipe for disaster … medicine cannot fix humanity … great harm can be done in the name of good and compassion," Hook said.

A questioner noted that today's advocates of human re-engineering deny that what they favor is eugenics. Dr. Hook added that the history of eugenics is no longer taught in American history. In response to this denial, Hook said his reply to those who deny the return of eugenics is to overwhelm them with quotes from the early twentieth century proving that what contemporary bioethicists and transhumanists are doing is essentially the same as the early twentieth century eugenicists. After World War II, the term "eugenics" was replaced by "medical genetics." American eugenics, is, however, an extremely "unfortunate heritage" for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other social liberal groups. People "don't want to hear that they are sinful human beings, and unfortunately, that's what history teaches us."

Rick Plasterer is a staff writer for IRD concerned particularly with domestic religious liberty. He attended Eastern Mennonite College (now University) receiving a B.A. degree in history and sociology, and an M.S. in library science from Drexel University.