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What Did I Say?

According to John Savage, I have supposedly argued this:

“Progressives” who support abortion on demand cannot logically argue against eugenics, such as was carried out by pre-WWII progressives who supported forced sterilization for the sake of reducing the numbers of “feebleminded” people.

This is what I actually said:

Every time someone on the left endorses the “right” to abortion today he does accept the idea that there are some who should never be born.  Progressive arguments on behalf of sterilisation and eugenics took it one step further: there were those who should never be allowed to conceive in the first place.   

In other words, the two views resemble each other in certain ways, but are not actually the same.  One is held by progressives today, and another was held by some progressives in the past.  At no point did I say or imply that progressives cannot logically argue against state-enforced coercive eugenics and sterilisation policies.  If anything, the implication is that today’s progressives have failed to be consistent in their current opposition to negative eugenics because they accept the methods and assumptions of “positive” eugenics and because they imagine that the state-protected and funded murder of unborn children is significantly ethically different from the use of the state apparatus to eliminate “undesirables” from the gene pool.  The Down’s Syndrome exception that seems to be in vogue rests on this assumption: there is a kind of life that is not lebenswert, enlightened people know that kind of life that is and they can determine–or will defend the rights of parents to determine–when such a life should be terminated or prevented from coming into being in the first place.  Progressives certainly can argue against negative eugenics (and it would be worth mentioning that I have made a point of distinguishing between different sorts of progressives to recognise that many different kinds have existed), and they do so, but this ought to make them take a much more critical view of “reproductive rights,” especially when one of the champions of that movement explicitly used an appeal to eugenics in her arguments for contraception.

This argument has become tedious.  On one side, there are those who point out the obvious (progressives in the past openly supported X, which means that progressivism has a history in which support for X occurred) and then note something true (there are today those who propose something called “liberal eugenics”) and then say something else that is true (modern progressives are typically strongly pro-abortion).  On the other side, you have a goodly number of people who either actively deny or ignore the first point, reject the second and resent that anyone would have the audacity to mention the third.  This is supposed to persuade the first group that they have made some horrible mistake.  It isn’t working.

The least impressive retorts have been along the lines of, “Why, conservatives supported segregation, too!  So there!”  As if anyone needed to be reminded.  This is not an obscure fact, but rather something that is routinely thrown in the face of anyone who claims to be a conservative.  It isn’t a question of whether conservatives should have to grapple with bearing a name that is associated with these policies–they already do, and have been doing so for decades.  If progressives want to use that name, they are more than welcome, but they will have to at least acknowledge and address the more unsavoury parts of the tradition to which they are appealing.  They cannot deny the history of the progressive tradition and they cannot be permitted to simply airbrush away inconvenient arguments that attempt to refashion eugenics in a liberal image.  If conservatives attempted to blithely pretend that there is no trace of the things that the left finds objectionable in the history of conservatism among modern conservatives, I would expect furious criticism and mockery from the left.  They should expect the same.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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