The Return of Eugenics

It’s beginning to look a lot like 1913, a decade before the peak of the Social Darwinism movement, a time when educated and concerned people joined the Race Betterment Foundation and looked to the settled science of eugenics to save civilization from the growing horde of the genetically inferior.

Events have since made the word eugenics distasteful, but not the notion. The idea of human perfection via managed procreation is back and stronger than ever, at least in the academy. Now instead of forcible sterilization, the call is for fetal genetic testing and selective abortion. Race is no longer the marker of unfitness; having incorrect thoughts or unwelcome moral attitudes and genetic unworthiness are.

Early eugenicists embraced contraception. In 1921 Margaret Sanger argued birth control was “not merely of eugenic value, but is practically identical in ideal, with the final aims of Eugenics.” Two such aims were “racial regeneration” and “to improve the quality of the generations of the future.” She said the “unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit’” was “the greatest present menace to civilization.” She thought “Birth Control propaganda is thus the entering wedge for the Eugenic educator.” If undesirables didn’t voluntarily stop making babies, steps would be taken. “Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupidly cruel sentimentalism.”

Spartans preferred exposure for the betterment of mankind while eugenicists touted culling and sterilizing the unfit, the breeding technique used by farmers to improve their stock. What was “unfit”? That was often left undefined, though Sanger pegged low IQ. She often trumpeted statistics like those which showed that 39% of white “charity obstetrical patients” at one hospital and “70% of the negroes were found to have a mental age of 11 years or less.”

Real and imagined racial disparities were eagerly discussed. Conclusions were drawn. Progress was made. But then came Hitler, concentration camps, and the horrific practical experience of purging racial impurity. Eugenicists were shamed and clammed up. The field lay fallow for half a century, until the rise of abortion “rights” and the expansion of the universities in the late twentieth century. There arose a new crop of academics convinced that if only they were put in charge, and just the right people were aborted, the world would be a better place.

Consider David DeGrazia, tenured at George Washington University, who in the Journal of Medical Ethics recently advocated creating a master race via programmatic “moral bioenhancement.” Like many, DeGrazia gazed upon the earth and saw “an abundance of immoral behaviour.” He worried “traditional means of moral enhancement may prove inadequate to achieve needed improvements,” therefore more drastic measures are called for. Such as selection “of embryos that contain a gene coding for a greater disposition to altruism” or even implanting an “artificial chromosome that includes multiple genes coding for stronger predispositions to a variety of moral virtues.”

He disfavors letting emerge from the womb those whose DNA codes for “moral cynicism” (he cites tax cheats), those not wanting to contribute “one’s fair share,” those with “defective empathy,” those who suffer “a failure of insight or motivation,” including those not wanting to donate more than 1% of the USA’s GDP to foreign governments (yes, truly). Who decides on the list of desirable and therefore allowable traits? Well, people like DeGrazia, though he concedes “it might make sense to permit parents to adopt more debatable visions of morality—among reasonable alternatives.”

The buzzword among cognoscenti is “post-person,” defined in a much-cited 2009 Philosophy and Public Affairs paper by tenured Duke professor Allen Buchanan, as those “who would have a higher moral status than that possessed by normal human beings” (emphasis original). Buchanan admits crafting chromosomal übermenschen “might be profoundly troubling from the perspective of the unenhanced (the mere persons) who would no longer enjoy the highest moral status, as they did when there were only persons and nonpersons (‘lower animals’).” There’s ample precedent to create this new hierarchy: “the profoundly demented and infants, do not have some of the characteristics that moral philosophers typically attribute to persons and that are thought to ground the distinctive rights that persons have.” Daniel Wikler, tenured at Harvard, agreed in a 2009 article contributed to Human Enhancement figuring that once we create super-moral beings, it makes sense to restrict the legal rights of the not-so-super.

Nicholas Agar of the University of Wellington is one of only a small (and decreasing) number of faculty who have read Mary Shelly. In a special issue of this year’s Journal of Medical Ethics he dared speculate about possible bad and unforeseen consequences and was immediately taken to task by a brace of academics, like Ingmar Persson (University of Gothenburg), who has predictably chided Agar for being “biased” against post-persons.

As is plain, the leading new-eugenics organ is the Journal of Medical Ethics, edited by Julian Savulescu (tenured, St Cross College, Oxford), self-appointed champion of genetic tinkering. He is the public face of the movement, writing in Reader’s Digest that it is “our duty” to have “designer babies” (would their color go with our shoes?) and that “people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children.”

He claims, “We now know that most psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes,” like, the “COMT gene” which selects for altruism (new-eugenicists really go for altruism). If you want your child “to be faithful and enjoy stable relationships” then abort him if he has “a variant of AVPR1.” Kill him, too, if he’s saddled with “a certain type of the MA0A gene” which is “linked to higher levels of violence in children who often suffer abuse or deprivation.”

Savulescu and the other new-eugenicists making these sorts of arguments delude themselves. “We” do not know that psychological characteristics are significantly determined by certain genes. And, as Yoav Benjamini and others have confirmed, the possibility of falsely associating a trait with a gene is high. If your baby is discovered to have “a version of the COMT gene” it does not mean that he will necessarily be altruistic. He may well grow up to be a cad. The implied claim that biology explains all or most behavior is false—do all identical twins act identically?

It is true that some genes are associated with some behaviors, but the association is statistical. Experiments with very limited numbers of (mostly white, educated, young, Western) volunteers show that more people who exhibit a specific behavior, or that fail to exhibit another, are more likely to have or lack certain genes than others in the experiments. Having a certain gene or genes thus does not mean a person will exhibit, or fail to exhibit, a behavior, especially a behavior as complex as altruism, which can only be measured crudely. Therefore it is absurd to say that by killing those who possess or lack a given gene will certainly promote desirable behaviors. Plus, nobody has any idea what would happen to the human population if certain genes are systematically removed (via abortion) or inserted (via injection). Perhaps the post-persons created in this program will be more altruistic, but they may also be more indolent or stupid as a consequence. To claim that this cannot be so is to argue wishfully, without evidence.

New-eugenicists aren’t claiming definitiveness, however. They know that gene-behavior connections are correlational and that behavior is difficult to unambiguously define. They know they’re using the “loaded-dice” argument such that aborting those with or without approved genes only increases the chances of desired behaviors, but doesn’t guarantee them. They know the correlations are weak, but they claim they’re good enough.

But just think. Here in the United States there are certain genes positively associated with crime, particularly violent crime. One group of people sporting a certain gene combination commit proportionally far more crime than others lacking these genes. This association is strong, vastly stronger than the correlation between altruism and the COMT gene, or any other gene-behavior connection; the statistical evidence is indisputable. Savulescu and his brother eugenicists’ logic is that those who display these genes should be aborted to create a better society. Who but an academic could get away with making arguments like this?

Legal abortion guarantees eugenics. Already, babies testing for Down’s syndrome are often aborted. Scientists have recently derived tests to discover over 3,500 genetic “faults.” It’s early days with the technology, so expect that number to rise, with definitions of “faults” increasingly provided by new-eugenicists. What’s forgotten in this rush for perfection is that no test is error free, and the error rate of the test depends on the “fault,” which means that a certain fraction of the pre-born who are killed will die healthy, wrongly suspected as having “faults.” But you can’t make an omelette, etc.

Eugenics via abortion for sex selection is legal in the United States, and even touted. The Manhattan-based Center For Human Reproduction tells pregnant women they may want to abort if they are concerned about diseases which “are inherited via the mother but only male offspring are affected (muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, etc.). In other cases, conditions are more severely expressed in one gender (Fragile X syndrome, autism in males, etc.) than the other.” They’re not suggesting your unborn baby boy is unhealthy, but they warn against having a boy because boys in general are less healthy. Curiously, the bias here is against males and not females as it is in the rest of the world. Congress gave itself a chance to ban sex selection, but in 2012 they voted down the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act which would have made such abortions illegal.

New-eugenicists know that, despite their best and most earnest efforts, a few unauthorized babies will slip past the goalie. Sensitivity training can’t cure them all. Academic philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva say kill ‘em while they’re still infants, before they have a chance to use their forbidden genes. The pair call their procedure “after-birth abortion.” The subtitle of their 2012 JME paper is “Why should the baby live?” Their argument? The “moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

For the small fraction of genetically inferior who make it out of the womb and past Giubilini’s and Minerva’s abattoir, there is always sterilization (as practiced by China, say) or drugs. For example, some claim propranolol douses racism. Sterilization is eugenics, but drugging somebody might seem not, or at least not per se. But administration of chemicals can interfere directly with the ability to procreate, or it might alter behaviors which are correlated with procreation, and that makes it eugenics.

Yet drugs, or rather “enhancement” of the already living, is not as optimal as eugenics argues Savulescu, particularly when it comes to eliminating lawlessness. In a 2006 Journal of Applied Philosophy paper he said “specific genetic markers” can be tied to “criminal tendency,” i.e. that criminality is heritable. That’s what he writes from the safety of his ivory tower. Hey, Julian, let’s me and you head to a pub in Melbourne and you can tell the blokes there what it would be like if a country was populated only by criminals with their heritable genes. Should make for an interesting discussion.

Editor’s note: The image above pictures Margaret Sanger in 1916.

William M. Briggs


William M. Briggs is a consultant and adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, with specialties in medicine and the philosophy of science. He blogs at

  • There are certainly many alarm bells here. You may be interested in this from New Zealand where bioethics are arguing to justify eugenics against the Down syndrome community

  • rtjl

    “He disfavors letting emerge from the womb those whose DNA codes for “moral cynicism” (he cites tax cheats), those not wanting to contribute “one’s fair share,” those with “defective empathy,” those who suffer “a failure of insight or motivation,” including those not wanting to donate more than 1% of the USA’s GDP to foreign governments (yes, truly). ”

    Does anybody else see the irony in this statement? Does DeGrazia realize that empathy, by definition, ought to move one to care for those who are considered weak or defective rather than to kill them? Does he realize that his own lack of empathy would mark HIM as one of those who should not have been allowed to “emerge from the womb”? (That’s not my sentiment by the way: it’s just the logical application of his own thought.)

    • FernieV

      What you say about this unfortunate bloke applies to all the lot of Eugenicists… They have lost all sense of the dignity of the human person, an image of God, and had decided that they prefer to be gods themselves. May God free society from such enlightened “academicians”.

    • Bono95

      Yeah, and if we’re supposed to kill babies who show signs of criminal genes, wouldn’t it also be easier and more efficient to kill adults exhibiting those genes instead of just drugging or sterilizing them? :-/

    • Alan Cooper

      Which statement? Do you realize what DeGrazia actually wrote or are you taking Briggs’ misleading precis of it at face value?

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Similar ideas began circulating in France some years ago. The National Assembly took them seriously enough to pass the Law of 6 August 2004, making the implementing of any eugenic practice aimed at organising the selection of persons punishable by thirty years’ criminal imprisonment and a fine of €7,500,000.

    It also made participation in a group formed or in an agreement established with a view to the preparation of such offences punishable by criminal imprisonment for life and a fine of €7,500,000

    Additional penalties include forfeiture of civic, civil and family rights, forfeiture of civic, civil and family rights and ° confiscation of any or all of their property, moveable or immoveable.

    • FernieV

      Happy to hear this good news about France! Let other civilized countries follow the lead! But we must keep on our guards, as the Left is bent on making a better world by discarding those who do not fall within their standards of the perfect new human race (read, people like themselves…)

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        Countries formerly occupied by the Nazis tend to be sensitive on the topic of eugenics

    • Michael Ryan

      Wow that’s shocking bet it doesn’t apply to dysgenic manipulation what sort of country makes thought the most severe crime. While it could be argued eugenics is wrong. evolutionary selection exists and we have been on a 200 year tear of social programs that are dysgenic. the white mans burden is becoming crushing if he collapses the world will degenerate quickly into barbarous chaos. Pretending that because we are far away from specifying which and how genes affect behavior etc that evolution does not exist is crazy and it will cause great suffering likely the extinction of mankind. if America Europe and the anglophere are destroyed my massive immigration mankind will paraphrase Milton Friedman you can have great social safety networks and eugenics or neither

  • Sometimes I almost wish there never had been such a thing as a university … When was the last time a genuinely beneficial idea came from the professoriate?

    • Diego Fernando Ramos Flor

      Even when I agree with your rethorical question, I must confess that I think it’s not the guilt of the institution, but of the lack of ethics on the members of that institution. And I must confess too that, reading your articles, I feel tempted to call you “Professor” (with the very best of intentions) Esolen, hehe.

    • Ford Oxaal

      Once they gnawed off their Christian roots, they began to wander into the cesspool of evil, thinking they were drinking in the elixir of power and knowledge. What is more pathetic than the fool if not the elite fool.

  • Wow this piece is amazing- Eugenics is horrible, I blog about it on my Saynsumthn Word Press all the time. You are very in depth on Modern Eugenics. I would like to recommend an interesting documentary on Eugenics called Maafa21

  • Patricia

    It’s scary. Scary like Brave New World.

    • musicacre

      Brave New World has been here since the Roman Empire; it’s just that in the ensuing Christian empires it festered and swilled below the surface and is now triumphantly trumpeted as a “new” solution. Solution to what, I don’t know. I assume these people are sick of living so they want to deny life to others. They can’t grasp the good, the true and the beautiful anymore….

      • tedseeber

        ” I assume these people are sick of living so they want to deny life to others. ”
        [Devil’s Advocate Mode On]
        Makes me wonder if the solution of the Lord of the World in Benson’s novel of the same name, might not be considered a more reasonable ideal. Let those who deny the Truth due to the Problem of Suffering, come to Oregon. We’ve got a solution here for them if they can convince their doctor that despair is a terminal illness with less than six months to death in the form of 9 grams of poison pills. Better that they should die and get out of the way of the next generation, than to kill off the next generation. [Devil’s Advocate Mode Off].

  • tamsin

    DeGrazia gazed upon the earth and saw “an abundance of immoral behaviour.” He worried “traditional means of moral enhancement may prove inadequate to achieve needed improvements,” therefore more drastic measures are called for. Such as selection “of embryos that contain a gene coding for a greater disposition to altruism” or even implanting an “artificial chromosome that includes multiple genes coding for stronger predispositions to a variety of moral virtues.”

    Wow, that fits exactly with all the Marxist preaching at my parish, in which we receive the truth that “traditional means of moral enhancement” have failed to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, and the only moral thing left for a good Catholic to do is to work for using the coercive powers of the state to redistribute wealth… until the herd can be culled.

  • tamsin

    it is “our duty” to have “designer babies” (would their color go with our shoes?) and that “people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children.”

    Clearly, the genetic Proletariat are suffering from a false-consciousness of having free will and moral agency. Time for a Vanguard.

  • enness

    Imagine if they knew that Beethoven would go deaf.

  • musicacre

    I like that last sentence about the pub in Melbourne! Funny how Australia turned out OK. Margaret Sanger would have a bird if she could be alive still and realize how deadly wrong she was. I’m wondering if she had a God complex; she seemed to think it was her duty alone to decide who is worthy of life! How delusional is that? How do we know she was worthy? According to her artificial standards, no one would measure up. And of course she operates in the same boxed-in notion as many atheists, that free will has nothing to do with human behavior. It must be a scary and unpredictable world indeed for people that carry that burden of a lie.

    • givelifeachance2

      I’m not so sure the pub people would necessarily see the truth- consider how Germans were brainwashed: “In some cases, though, the parents actually supported the murder of their own children. In his book, Lifton offers the horrifying example of a father who proudly sent his child to this fate: “The Führer wanted to explore the problem of people who had no future — whose life was worthless…. From then on, we wouldn’t have to suffer from this terrible misfortune, because the Führer had granted us the mercy of killing our son. Later, we could have other children, handsome and healthy of whom the Reich could be proud.””

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  • Ford Oxaal

    That’s just great. The faculties of higher ethical learning are nothing more than corrupt zombies inhabited by the ghost of Dr. Mengele. Unfortunately, American parents are culpably stupid and continue to pay dearly to have their offspring brainwashed by these sociopaths.

  • A M

    Any attempt to link morality with physiology (at least in terms of linking it to our genes) is just a pathetic, atheistic attempt to “debunk” the concept of free will. The gene or genes they have found common in criminal persons, if there are such genes, cannot be automatically assumed to make a person criminal. They might, for instance, be related to a person’s hotheadedness, or impatience, or something like that… which of course, are no excuse to commit crimes, since we have a free will. Many saints battled their whole lives with such imperfections, and by the grace of God, won out beautifully over them. It would be hilarious to know how many of them might have born that same gene. But the atheist, who denies the realities of God and His grace, cannot possibly admit that their own sins, and consequently anyone else’s, actually belong to THEM. (Eg., are their own fault, and that yes, they are truly and actually guilty and responsible for their own evil actions.)

    Just imagine the cry of outrage if the public refused to worship and venerate famous atheist academics, on the grounds that, “oh, you didn’t really do that… it was just your genes. So we don’t need to respect you or your work. You’re just a dumb animal following what’s in your physical makeup.”

    But the desperate atheist will never give up. Even while other credible scientists are showing by very excellent arguments that free will not only exists, but that it actually does what it insinuates (eg, not only does it SEEM we can make choices, we CAN make choices), the atheists pent up in their academic offices just plug their ears, and continue to spew this illogical, irrational garbage. While the atheists, for instance, believe things like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is incurable, and can only be treated with drugs, other, credible scientists have come to different conclusions, which blatantly prove free will can be used to overcome the disorder’s irrational urges, with therapy and time. ( )

    I look forward to the day when the attempts of the atheists, in their mad quest for vindication, have been publicly debunked to such an extent, that it is literally embarrassing for the common man just to hear what they’re saying. (Some of us are already there, of course.)

  • Alecto

    Maybe Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva have a point. Let’s start the practice with them. Clearly they “slipped by” and are nothing more than monsters.

    • Bono95

      Don’t tempt me

  • Sport

    I am saddened by these ideas. I believe the best response to these ideas is to tell people about Crisis Magazine. Write your priest or minister a letter asking him to mention Crisis Magazine as well as other faith based and family based Christian publications. I plan to write my parish priest a letter asking him to mention Crisis as well as the National Catholic Register. I plan to include a sample of these articles in the letter. I will ask him “Who do you want to influence the next generation of Catholics?”.

  • puffdaddy

    I have to disagree to a certain extent. Sure progressives like abortion, but they really don’t care about who is having them. Anyone will do. Moreover, how do you explain the contradiction that progressives are also busy electing a new people (with lots of help from the Catholic church) of people mainly from 3rd world countries through mass immigration, refugee programs, relocation programs, and so on? These people have high birth rates and will be wedded to the welfare state. Explain please.

    • tedseeber

      If they don’t care who is having them, how do you explain the Department of Health and Human Services Teen Outreach Program, administered by Planned Parenthood, that is ONLY in high schools with majority negro or immigrant populations?

      The whole idea is to sterilize the 2nd generation of those immigrant families- so that you always have laborers for the underclass.

      • puffdaddy

        So are you saying that progressives are THAT nefarious that they want to eliminate the American black in favor of an underclass of foreign imports? Why? Because they think they will be grateful and not clamor for the same rights as everyone else? Or do they want to start a domestic ethnic war. At any rate, it never ceases to amaze the lengths progressives will go to to screw American blacks.

  • It’s funny that one of the first “faults” aborted are those with Down’s Syndrome. Every person with this I have ever met has been exceptionally gentle and kindhearted. Which is more than I can say for the majority of us.

    Who gets to say what’s “inferior” or “undesirable”? What is the yardstick against which everyone will be measured that can be universally acceptable to all? Liberals wouldn’t want those with conservative tendencies to live, bigots wouldn’t want whatever group they hate to live, blue eyed, blonde people wouldn’t want dark eyed, dark haired people to live . . . We descent rapidly down a vast spiral of stupid when considering this. It brings to mind two quotes from “Jurassic Park” – “Your scientists (insert eugenicists here) were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” and “Oh, God help us. We’re in the hands of engineers (again changing the word).

    • FernieV

      I have the same experience: ALL the folks with Down’s Syndrome I have met are LOVING, AFFECTIONATE, CARING… And they are bent in preventing us from enjoying their company by killing them before they are born!!!!

      • Bono95

        So much for increasing empathy.

  • Alan Cooper

    This is on a par with getting all excited about “tenured professors” discussing the ethics of pushing a fat guy off a bridge to stop a train from killing five others up ahead on the track. What they are doing is mainly just pushing the limits of various forms of moral argument to test out where they give results that we find repugnant (and then perhaps to ask or imply the question as to whether it’s the argument or the instinctive reaction which should be discounted).

    And there’s a big difference between saying that (under certain hypothetical circumstances) “you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children”
    and saying that “people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children.”

  • “The implied claim that biology explains all or most behavior is false—do all identical twins act identically?”

    ^^^^This is your brain on religion folks.

    Uhhhh….I suppose the good Mr. Briggs (an adjunct Professor of Statistics at Cornell University, with specialties in medicine and the philosophy of science no?) has either never heard of EPIGENETIC FACTORS THAT CLEARLY OFFER REASONS FOR BEHAVIORAL DIFFERENCES IN MONOZYGOTIC TWINS OR HE’S MERELY BEING A DISINGENUOUS WORM IN ORDER TO FURTHER THE VATICAN’S AGENDA :/,9171,1952313,00.html

    • Bono95

      I’d much rather be “doped up” on religion than doped up on eugenics. Heck, I’d rather be doped up on dope or crack or horse or whatever than doped up on eugenics.*

      *But if I was doped up on a controlled substance that “opened my mind”, I might inadvertently find myself opening up to eugenics. I guess I’ll stick with religion then, because it will only open my mind to love and life for all, not to death and mutilation of the “unfit”.

  • tom

    Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure.

    Since the murder trial of Pennsylvania abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell , there has been precious little coverage of the case that should be on every news show and front page. The revolting revelations of doctor’s staff staff, who have been testifying to what they witnessed and did during late-term abortions, should shock anyone with a heart. It’s routine stuff in this America that once promised “Life and Liberty” in its first Declaration. Uncle Sam…he dead.

    • Objectivetruth

      Agreed, Tom. I live outside of Philadelphia, and this story is getting little attention from the local news. Everyone should go to the Lifesite News website and read the reports from the trial. But be prepared: it is the most horrible thing you’ve ever read! Gosnell over his career killed off over 100 babies born alive after an abortion by snipping the back of their spines with scissors. One worker at the abortion mill says these born alive babies essentially laid there screaming as they were decapitated. Workers said the place was always “raining fetuses and blood.” Gosnell is one of the biggest mass murderers in US history and zero coverage from CNN,MSNBC, and FOX. And in the tradition of eugenics and Margaret Sanger, the overwhelming majority of women getting abortions done were African American and Hispanic.

    • Objectivetruth

      here’s the website for Lifesite News giving daily stories on the Gosnell trial. PLEASE! It’s tough reading but we should all be aware of this, and pass this website on!:

  • Objectivetruth

    The documentary “3801 Lancaster” on the Gosnell case:

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