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Haunting Echoes of Eugenics

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.

Last fall, Britain's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists argued for "active euthanasia" of significantly disabled newborns to spare parents emotional and financial burden.

Two years earlier, the Groningen Protocol emerged in the Netherlands; it proposed selection criteria for euthanizing babies and children with disabilities.

And across the United States, "futile care" policies have required that the most vulnerable give up their hospital beds -- and lives -- for those with more "potential."

In stark contrast to words such as "defective," "burdensome" and "futile" are the words of civil rights laws that liberate and defend.

The Americans With Disabilities Act recognizes disability as a natural part of the human experience that in no way should limit an individual's ability to participate fully in all aspects of society. The U.N. convention reaffirms that people with disabilities have both a right to life and a right to the effective enjoyment of that life on an equal basis with others.

On this 80th anniversary of Buck, let's not foolishly believe that victims of eugenics are an artifact of history. So long as we speak in terms of good genes and bad genes, recognize a life with a disability as an injury, and allow health policies to value some lives over others, we continue to create human rights violations every day.

Andrew J. Imparato is president and chief executive and Anne C. Sommers is the policy counsel of the American Association of People With Disabilities, based in Washington.

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