In his new book, Better for All the World, Harry Bruinius tells how America became the “guiding light” of the eugenics movement.
While the eugenicists’ preferred instrument was mass sterilization, that was not the only tool in their demonic toolkit. They also advocated segregation of the “unfit” and even euthanasia.
If these last two sound familiar, that’s because, as Bruinius tells us, what the Germans called “racial hygiene” was based on American efforts. While serving time in Landsberg prison in the 1920s, Adolf Hitler read The Passing of the Great Race by American eugenicist Madison Grant and called it “my bible.”
After the Nazis came to power, they naturally looked to the United States as a model. The Nazi sterilization law explicitly cited a similar California statute. The Nazis, who were not restrained by what Grant called “mistaken” and “sentimental” beliefs in “divine law” and “the sanctity of human life,” soon surpassed their American teachers. This prompted one American eugenicist to admiringly proclaim, “The Germans are beating us at our own game!”
It was not until the defeat of Germany and the full horror of the Nazi eugenic program and medical experiments became widely known that eugenics became discredited. Actually, it was the expression eugenics, more than the idea itself, that was discredited. While overtly racist eugenics is hopefully a thing of the past, what we might call the “eugenic temptation” is very much alive and well.
For instance, women seeking donor insemination are practicing a kind of eugenics. In seeking donors who meet certain physical and intellectual criteria, they are following in the footsteps of Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, and the father of modern eugenics.
The more obvious contemporary example of “directing human evolution”—what Christians call “playing God”—is biotechnology. As philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler has written, biotechnology is about more than “the eradication of some particularly horrible diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” It’s about the reinvention of what it means to be human.
Specifically, what’s being promised is a world where those who are considered “unfit” never are born and, thus, never are a burden on the rest of us. Whether we admit or not, we still seek the improvement of the “race” by identifying those who carry “undesirable” traits and preventing their births.
What we are doing to babies with Down syndrome, who have been “targeted for elimination” by doctors, governments, and insurance companies, is only the beginning. The more we learn about the genetic basis of “undesirable” traits, the longer the list of those we “target.”
The only thing standing in the way of this are the same people who stood in the way of the old eugenics: Christians. As Bruinius tells us, it was Christians, people like Billy Sunday and William Jennings Bryan, who led the opposition to eugenics in the United States. And in Britain, it was G. K. Chesterton, the great writer.
If the “new eugenics” is to be stopped, it’s because today’s believers in “divine law” and the “sanctity of human life” are prepared to join this distinguished company.
For further reading and information:
Charles Colson and Nigel Cameron, eds., Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy.
Harry Bruinius, Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity (Knopf, 2006). Read an excerpt.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 060406, “Better for All the World?: Apple-Pie Eugenics.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 051205, “Scary Science: Disturbing Developments on the Down Syndrome Front.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 051223, “The Truest Thing in the World: The Cry of a Tiny Babe.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 061005, “Cutting It: Engineering Human Evolution.”
Peter Augustine Lawler, Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future (ISI Books, 2005).
“Playing God?” is a worldview curriculum for churches on bioethics issues from stem cell research to in vitro fertilization.
See BreakPoint’s information page on stem cell research and other bioethics issues.