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Good Genes

A recent book on eugenics misses the mark.

Margaret Sanger Seated at Desk
Margaret Sanger (1883-1966), Undated. Getty Images.

Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics by Adam Rutherford (2022, Weidenfeld & Nicholson), 268 pages.

I have been writing about the history of eugenics for decades, but I never knew that Donald Trump was guilty of “straight up old-school eugenics.” That’s one of the conclusions Adam Rutherford reaches in his Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics. Rutherford bases his judgement of Trump on a few of The Donald’s throwaway lines about “good genes” during speeches in Minnesota, “a state that is more than 80 per cent White,” Rutherford breathlessly writes. 

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Given academic fashions, it was only a matter of time before someone published a “woke” history of eugenics, and Rutherford’s Control certainly qualifies. Rutherford teaches at University College London, where a bequest from the late Victorian polymath Francis Galton, who invented the term “eugenics” in 1883, pays his salary. (Rutherford freely admits the irony.) The eugenics movement swept much of the globe in the half century leading up to the Second World War. Its principles—that experts had the scientific knowledge to improve human breeding and that governments should pass laws to that end—were taught at universities and public schools around the world, including in the United States. Eugenic organizations preached the urgency of implementing measures such as the coercive sterilization of men and women with disabilities. 

The most horrendous example of eugenics was the Third Reich’s 1933 law that led to the sterilization of roughly 400,000 Germans prior to 1939, the vast majority without anything that resembles informed consent.

But eugenics lived on into the postwar era. In the name of population control, countries like India and China imposed mass sterilization or abortion laws. In other localities, eugenics continues to this day under the guise of family planning as welfare agencies pressure women into practicing different types of contraception. 

In recent years, Galton’s name has been removed from UCL’s buildings. Rutherford has no problems with Galton’s “cancellation.” To Rutherford, eugenics was and is a bad thing. As he defines it, who would disagree? Eugenics is a “fetishization” of the science of genetics for “political ends,” he says, and always culminates in “attempts to exert control on the zone where people, biology, society are knotted.”

“Inevitably,” Rutherford writes, “with the story of eugenics we come to the Nazis.” 

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Except that we don’t. In the story of eugenics, we also come “inevitably” to birth controllers Margaret Sanger and England’s Marie Stopes. New York City’s Alan Guttmacher Institute is named after a physician and high-profile member of Planned Parenthood Federation of America who argued that abortion laws should be liberalized to achieve eugenic aims. In Canada, some of the most ardent proponents of eugenic sterilization laws were the so-called “Famous Five,” a group of feminists in the 1920s who lobbied successfully to achieve equal legal status for women. So notorious was the Famous Five’s eugenic advocacy that the Canadian government removed their image from the country’s fifty dollar bill in 2012 (although their statues still adorn Ottawa’s Parliament Hill).

The story of eugenics leads us to luminaries from across the political spectrum, including Fabian socialists, suffragettes, environmentalists, marriage counsellors, liberal and modernist churchmen, and Supreme Court justices. Eugenic sterilization laws tended to be enacted in American states swept by Progressive ideology. Eugenics can take the form of a PPFA counsellor just as surely as it can be embodied in a brown-shirted storm trooper.

Nor is it true that, as Rutherford writes, eugenics policies “disproportionately affected racialized groups, primarily those descended from the enslaved and Indigenous Americans.” Margaret Sanger became an advocate of involuntary sterilization when as a young nurse she visited the homes of immigrant women from eastern and southern Europe whose frequent pregnancies had damaged their health. Protestant Americans often praised eugenics because it seemingly targeted Catholic mothers and other poor whites with supposedly “poor motivation” when it came to contraception. 

If the first part of Rutherford’s book is marred by bad history, the second part is more informative. Rutherford is a genetics researcher himself, and he attempts to bring readers up to date with developments in reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. He cautions that science’s “current understanding of genetics does not allow for control of even the supposedly simplistic traits,” such as cystic fibrosis.

But when parents faced with a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome decide to abort the fetus, Rutherford gets wishy-washy all of a sudden, saying that they face “an ethical dilemma hard to resolve.”

What else is the choice to abort a Down Syndrome baby but an example of “our unending wish to control reproduction,” so characteristic of the eugenic villains in his book? Rutherford argues that these decisions aren’t real eugenics because they are not “decreed by the state.” In the face of the high costs and emotional challenges of supporting such children throughout their lives in this day and age, often spelled out in grim detail by supposedly impartial genetic counsellors, is it surprising that so many American women in that situation opt for an abortion? How voluntary, then, is the choice to abort a Down Syndrome infant? 

Rutherford ends his book with a call for his readers to leave the “ethical discussions” about genetics up to people like himself, researchers who supposedly park their political ideologies at the lab door. This is laughable. As Rutherford himself admits, in the history of eugenics the public was told over and over again by governments, educators, and the media to trust allegedly disinterested scientists.  

Rutherford is obviously a smart man when it comes to genetics. But he succumbs to the all too human temptation these days to try to fit history into politically correct categories. His eagerness to shoehorn Trump into the history of eugenics may excite “woke” readers, but in the process he regrettably distorts the past.

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