Earlier this year the Claremont Review of Books published Prof. Michael Uhlmann’s review of Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. Prof. Uhlmann, a JWI Senior Scholar, notes “that eugenics lay at the very center of the progressive program,” and how it it powerfully brought together “a dogmatic faith in science and the scientific method, a comparable belief in the malleability of human nature and how it might be directed toward socially and economically beneficent goals, and supreme confidence in the power of government…” Professor Uhlmann adds his thoughts on how this trend is already beginning to manifest in the use of contemporary medical screening techniques.
“Minimum wage and immigration policies were but two expressions of a eugenics mindset that imagined a universe in which “the fit” (all those sturdy northern European types like the Progressive intelligentsia) would be encouraged to breed, while “the unfit” would be discouraged. Without putting too fine a point on it, the short history of eugenics thereafter is essentially the story of how the definition of “unfit” expanded while the methods to discourage their multiplication became increasingly coercive.
“These intersecting lines of thought culminated in the enactment of involuntary sterilization laws, beginning with Indiana and eventually imitated by 32 other states. No goose-stepping, brown-shirted thugs here, just ordinary folk inspired by Progressive propaganda to enact laws that would improve mankind by adjusting the contents of its gene pool through compulsory sterilization. To paraphrase a commercial jingle once deployed by a leading American chemical company, “Better things for better living through surgery,” and never mind whether the patient consented or not. Beginning in 1907 and over the next five decades, nearly 70,000 people would be involuntarily sterilized. As Leonard suggests, what is striking about the development of American eugenics is the ease with which its barbarism was masked under the rubric of good intentions and social approval, justified at every turn by what passed for respectable scientific research. So respectable indeed that the Supreme Court bestowed an 8-1 benediction on involuntary sterilization in the infamous case of Buck v. Bell(1927). Although many people today would shudder at the thought, few recoiled in horror when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, citing compulsory vaccination laws as precedent, upheld Carrie Buck’s coerced sterilization, saying “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
“…the disposition that led to their enactment appears to be alive and well, as witness judicial orders and proposed legislation in a number of states that would mandate contraception as a condition for welfare benefits. Indeed, notwithstanding the instructive cautionary lessons of Leonard’s book, the utopian dream of eugenic disposition would appear to be stronger than ever. The crudely coercive techniques justified in the past in the name of improving mankind’s lot must surely be viewed as quaint or barbaric by practitioners of modern biotechnology who spend their days manipulating embryos in Petri dishes.”
“So far, ART and PGD are still largely unregulated fields of endeavor. But to imagine that the power they unleash will remain in the realm of private decision-making is, to say no more, naïve. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World presented one option for where genetic technology was likely to take us. Are we doomed to translate his fiction into reality? Thomas Leonard had no occasion to address modern genetics, but the evidence presented by Illiberal Reformers offers little to support an optimistic answer to the question.”
Read the Full Book Review Here