Ross Douthat, the young conservative who replaced Bill Kristol at The New York Times in 2009, used his latest column to address the issue of "Eugenics, Past and Future." He made some valuable points, but unfortunately, he was selective in his history, took a gratuitous sideswipe at "liberals" and proceeded to distort the discussion to reinforce his own prejudices.
The top and tail of the column are sensible. Eugenics really was a common belief among the American elite before World War II, and "a story that defies easy stereotypes about progress and enlightenment." Moreover, his conclusion about what modern elites have in common with their grandparents is accurate enough:
First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.
Between these two paragraphs, however, Douthat characterizes the older eugenicists as being "often political and social liberals," which is not totally untrue but definitely misleading. The first instigator was a British aristocrat who proposed breeding "men of distinction and women of wealth" to create a gifted race, and proposed replacing blacks in Africa with the supposedly more-capable Chinese. Later enthusiasts included President Hoover, J.P. Morgan, Charles Lindbergh and many other right-wing leaders, some of whom applauded German efforts at racial purification.
Douthat ignores the obviously racist tenor of eugenic thought and asks rhetorically if modern prenatal testing is a sort of "liberal eugenics" (with quotes in his original). Again, this is a distortion, although there are indeed some self-identified liberals with sympathy for free-market eugenics. However, the tendency is more accurately associated with the now old-fashioned sense of "liberal" meaning "libertarian."
Where he goes completely off the rails, however, is his assertion that
Like so many of our debates about reproductive ethics, that question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.
Douthat uses that to invent his own particular straw-person argument about what he sees as a "rigorous pro-choice perspective." For him, there can be no nuance for the opponents of his own hard line. In that, of course, he is quite wrong.
With only slightly more subtlety than most anti-choice advocates, Douthat is pushing a line that uses widely shared concerns about prenatal selection practices to justify restricting or banning abortion. We saw this recently with PRENDA, the so-called Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, which tries to use sex-selection as a wedge issue to divide progressives and undermine abortion rights. We have seen it in numerous other proposals. But these are excuses, as several recent articles published by RH Reality Check have documented, and as many civil rights groups have stressed.
To Douthat, the horrific abuses done in the name of eugenics should be addressed by elevating the status of embryos, restricting the rights of women, and blaming liberals. We would be better advised to address the eugenic impulse directly, and to confront the sometimes unacknowledged racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism that still haunt our society.
Previously on Biopolitical Times:
Posted in Bioethics, Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits, Eugenics, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Reproductive Justice, Health & Rights, Sex Selection
Comments are now closed for this item.