Haunting Echoes of Eugenics

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By Andrew J. Imparato and Anne C. Sommers
Sunday, May 20, 2007

In its preamble, the recently unveiled U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities recognizes"the inherent dignity and worth and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."

We wonder what Oliver Wendell Holmes would have said about that.

This month marked the 80th anniversary of the disgraceful Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell, which upheld Virginia's involuntary sterilization laws. In his majority opinion, Holmes declared: "It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles is enough."

Although eugenics was eventually dismissed as "junk science," it didn't happen before states authorized more than 60,000 forcible sterilizations and segregated, institutionalized, and denied marriage and parental rights to those deemed "genetically unfit."

Though society may be inclined to regard Holmes's detestable opinion in Buck v. Bell as a relic of a time past, eerie similarities exist in contemporary remarks of the well-respected.

Justifying the sterilization of "genetically unfit" individuals, Holmes wrote that Carrie Buck was "the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring."

Some 72 years later, renowned embryologist Bob Edwards said, "Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children."

Not long ago, an embryo entrepreneur boasted on her business's Web site, "In the process of screening donors, we select only those that have clean medical backgrounds. . . . The embryos that are available have all been medically 'graded,' so that the recipient family knows the quality of the embryos that they will be implanting."

In the past, eugenicists emphasized the "burden" of disability. Holmes wrote that individuals with disabilities "sap the strength of the State."

In recent years, Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has said, "It does not seem quite wise to increase any further draining of limited resources by increasing the number of children with impairments."

In January, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists urged all women regardless of age to undergo prenatal screening for Down syndrome, aware of statistics that greater than 85 percent of pregnancies diagnosed with Down syndrome end in abortion.

Several states recognize life with a disability as an injury in "wrongful life" lawsuits, and certain judges who hear these cases agree that in some instances, selective abortions help answer a greater policy concern in curbing health-care expenditures.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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