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June 30, 2009


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"Disability studies scholars have repeatedly pointed out that prenatal testing itself is founded on eugenics, whether we endorse or reject the practice."

This is a rather ambiguous statement. It could mean that PNT is historically the product of the Eugenics movement. Or it could mean that eugenicists would have been in favor of PNT. Or it could mean that PNT can only be justified by arguments that eugenicists would agree with. But those are all very different.

I guess I find this kind of thing troubling because it calls to mind the claim that Eugenics was founded on Darwinism or that Nazism was founded on Nietzsche.

Hey Neuroskeptic,

Yes, the statement was ambiguous, but this is a blog post, not a polished manuscript. Here's my attempt at clarification:

To the best of my knowledge, there is no immediate historical connection between PNT and the eugenics movement. Whether eugenicists would have been in favor of PNT is irreducibly speculative, though given the ample historical record of their beliefs, I find it hard to believe that committed American eugenicists would have found much to differ with in regards to PNT.

As for the third possibility you raise, that "PNT can only be justified by arguments that eugenicists would agree with," I don't see how that is fairly implied by anything I write. I certainly think that PNT can be justified by arguments eugenicists would agree with, but it does not follow that PNT can "only" be justified as such.

(That may or may not be the case, but I don't see how that argument is contained in my text).

My point here is that it seems difficult to understand why overwhelming percentages of persons in the U.S. faced with the decision of whether to terminate a trisomy 21 fetus choose to do so absent the belief that it would be better if the fetus with trisomy 21 was not born.

This is itself a core eugenics idea -- that it would be better for the person themselves, better for the family, and better for society if certain persons were either not born, in the case of Buck v. Bell and the Black Stork, or in the case of already-living persons, were removed from society.

I find your final comment puzzling, because I am not sure what "kind of thing" you find "troubling." No historian of American eugenics that I am aware of reduces the American eugenics movement to any kind of linear connection with Darwinism, as if Darwinism "caused" eugenics, or any such absurdly simple and naive notion.

However, it is equally spurious to deny that Darwinism's immense influence, and, indeed, the entire scientific field of heredity exerted an enormous influence in the scope and direction of American eugenics in the first few decades of the 20th century. Scientific racism was all too real, and while American eugenics is certainly not reducible to scientific racism, and not all eugenicists were scientific racists, it would be white-washing in the extreme to pretend that such racism played little part in shaping the scope of American eugenics c. 1890-1930.

As for Nazism and Nietzsche, I don't see the analogy. I am no Nietzsche expert -- far from it -- but virtually anyone who has taken an undergraduate level class on Nietzsche with a halfway competent teacher should learn very quickly that the Nazis twisted and corrupted Nietzsche for their own purposes.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

I have this tendency to twitch whenever eugenics is presented. In concept and properly practiced, it is actually a very good idea. However, various implementations of it over history have left it with a very negative reputation.

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