January 21, 2022

Making eugenics acceptable again

A critic of the bad old eugenics embraces the good new eugenics.

Gene editing technology will inevitably lead to eugenics – and that’s a good thing, says Adam Cohen, the author of ”Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck”.

Cohen’s book relates the tragic story of a young woman from Virginia who was forcibly sterilised. Her case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which concluded, in the notorious words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” That case marked the highwater mark of the American eugenics movement. But Nazi atrocities almost completely discredited the idea.

However, writing in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Cohen, like an increasing number of bioethicists, distinguishes between “bad eugenics” and “good eugenics”. The former is totalitarian and involuntary; the latter is individual and discretionary. He strongly supports the idea of “embryo editing”: “This time around, eugenics could be a force for good.”

… we should also recognize that there is a crucial difference between the old eugenics and the new. Rather than demonizing “unfit” people and working to sterilize them, the new eugenics regards their inherited disabilities as treatable medical conditions and seeks to help them have healthy children.

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