The current issue of Yale Alumni Magazine includes a portrait of Irving Fisher, a Yale economics professor in the 1920s and ‘30s and a giant of his field. The author, Richard Conniff, takes note of Fisher’s prodigious professional accomplishments and his private decency in order to foreground the real subject of his article: the economist’s role as one of his era’s highest-wattage proponents of eugenics.
The American elite’s pre-World War II commitment to breeding out the “unfit”—defined variously as racial minorities, low-IQ whites, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the criminally inclined—is a story that defies easy stereotypes about progress and enlightenment. On the one hand, these U.S. eugenicists tended to be WASP grandees like Fisher—ivory-tower dwellers and privileged have-mores with an obvious incentive to invent spurious theories to justify their own position.
But these same eugenicists were often political and social liberals. From Teddy Roosevelt to the Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, fears about “race suicide” and “human weeds” were common among self-conscious progressives, who saw the quest for a better gene pool as of a piece with their broader dream of human advancement.
This progressive fascination with eugenics largely ended with World War II and the horrors wrought by National Socialism. But while the West has discarded the theory of the eugenics era, the practice urged by Fisher and others—the elimination or pre-emption, through careful reproductive planning, of the weaker members of the human species—has become a more realistic possibility than it ever was in the 1920s and ‘30s.
The eugenicists had very general ideas about genetics and heredity, very crude ideas about intelligence, and deeply poisonous ideas about racial hierarchies. They did not have, as we do, access to the genetic blueprints of individuals—including, most important, human beings still developing in utero, whose development can be legally interrupted by intervention.
This month brought a remarkable breakthrough: A team of scientists mapped nearly an entire fetal genome using blood from the mother and saliva from the father.
Thanks to examples like Irving Fisher, we know what the elites of a bygone era would have done with that kind of information: They would have empowered the state (and the medical establishment) to determine which fetal lives should be carried to term, and which should be culled for the good of the population as a whole.
That scenario is all but unimaginable in today’s political climate. But given our society’s track record with prenatal testing for Down syndrome, we also have a pretty good idea of what individuals and couples will do with comprehensive information about their unborn child’s potential prospects. In 90 percent of cases, a positive test for Down syndrome leads to an abortion.
Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization? That question hinges on what one thinks about the moral status of the fetus.
From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights.
But this is a convenient perspective for our civilization to take. Having left behind pseudoscientific racial theories, it’s easy for us to pass judgment on yesterday’s eugenicists. It’s harder to acknowledge what we have in common with them.
First, a desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.•
• Douthat is a New York Times op-ed columnist. Send comments on this column to email@example.com.