Is This Eugenics?

The “is this eugenics?” argument reminds me of the “is this racism?” argument.

One argument people use to justify not calling things racist goes like this. We should reserve the term “racist” for only the most egregious examples. It should not be hurled in the face of mere prejudice or a casual off-color joke. It should be saved for the ideology itself, which includes an aspiration for government (or some other forceful tool) to bend the world in some predetermined direction.

If we don’t, the term loses its potency. If the term “racism” starts to refer to something not actually threatening or deeply dangerous, we start to become complacent about racism. If everything and everyone is racist ten racism can’t be that bad.

That’s essentially what “kpagination” is doing in We need to name some modern practices as eugenics – and don’t.

In it, they offer a list of modern practices they believe are eugenics.

The problem for me is that I can’t accept that prenatal testing for Down Syndrome constitutes eugenics historically understood and practiced. Prenatal testing for Down Syndrome is not a moral atrocity. It’s problematic, sure. But it’s not the same thing as forcibly sterilizing young girls by the thousands and lying about it to lower your food stamp bill.

Good and bad genes

These modern practices, like human genomics and gene-editing programs, “are rooted in eugenics, with the belief that disability is unacceptable and bad,” kpagination wrote.

This seems like black-and-white thinking to me. I would argue that most people don’t find disability unacceptable. Most people prefer ability to disability, all else equal. There are a lot of good reasons for people to have that preference.

Last year I wrote Should sick, poor, unhappy people have kids?

I see both sides of this question. Is it moral to knowingly bring a child into the world with a condition which will cause them to suffer physical and emotional pain than a healthy child? Is it moral to genetically engineer the human race to weed out traits we find undesirable? Imma say yes to both.

If genomics is eugenics then eugenics ain’t bad

For an ideology that so vehemently opposes promiscuous sex, it’s hilarious how many strange bedfellows Evangelical Christianity has.

Many Evangelical Christians oppose technology like stem cell research and embryo sorting on moral grounds. Advocates for the disabled describe technology like CRISPR and gene editing and genomics as immoral.


Eugenics today – from what I’ve seen – is generally cloaked in scientific legitimacy, using real science like CRISPR and gene editing and genomics. Like the eugenics of the past, a lot of people still have fear and other negative, oppressive beliefs regarding poverty, race, immigration, disability, and more. Like the eugenics of the past, is is presented as exciting new scientific discoveries. And that makes it just as terrifying, if not more.

There are also lots of good reasons for kpagination to wish most people didn’t prefer ability to disability, all else equal.

Is eugenics bigotry?

“Eugenics is ultimately rooted in intertwining sets of bigotry: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and more forms of oppression, using disability, ‘abnormality,’ and ‘defects’ to explain practices such as involuntary sterilization of any marginalized person.”

What bothers me about kpagination’s treatment of eugenics is that it conflates people’s thoughts on the disabled with their thoughts on disability. Racism, sexism, classism, and ableism are defined as thinking of people as lesser and treating them worse based on their race, sex, class, and ability.

The problem with lumping all these oppressions together is first that racism and sexism operate very differently from classism and ableism. Racism and sexism are wrong in a different way. They’re wrong because we recognize that in reality, white people and black people are equally valuable, as are men and women. They’re both equally good, however you define good.

You can’t say that about high-class and low class or abled versus disabled. I’m sorry, but you can’t. And the reason is suffering. If we eradicated racism and sexism today, there would be no suffering associated with race or gender. Maybe some with gender due to biology. But most gender-based suffering results from our ideas about gender. If we eradicated classism and ableism today, there would still be suffering associated with class and ability. Because suffering helps DEFINE class and ability. It’s baked in. Saying having enough money is better than not having enough money and being able to do stuff is better than not being able to do stuff isn’t bigotry. It’s fucking obvious. It’s as obvious as saying that not suffering is better than suffering.

Again and again the word “bad” comes up to describe how people feel about disability.

Okay, so if we can’t say disability is “bad,” can we say that suffering is bad?

Because disability generally causes suffering.

Kpagination doesn’t mention it, but logically speaking there’s no reason not to include embryo sorting in their list of examples of modern-day eugenics.

Personally, I don’t blame a parent for picking an embryo that seems like it will become a person who will suffer a lot less than the other embryo. I think selecting a healthy embryo for implantation and killing the unhealthy one is a reasonable, kind thing to do. There’s only so much womb in the end. If you choose to blindly risk bringing a child who will suffer greatly into the world when you could have taken steps to ensure you bring a child into the world who will likely suffer less, you are choosing to risk unnecessarily increasing the amount of suffering your child must endure. Is this the moral choice? It doesn’t seem to clear to me that it is. At all.

Well-meaning people have looked at the vast differences between the happiness, health, education, and opportunities for poor and rich kids and decided the thing to do was to encourage the poor to stop having kids and the rich to start. This makes sense. It’s moral. This, to the extent it’s possible to implement, would seem to reduce net suffering.

The only way to say that it’s immoral to prefer ability and access to wealth is to say that it’s immoral to prefer suffering less to suffering more.

Do I wish disabled people and poor people suffered less? Of course. That’s why I oppose classism and ableism. But do I think being poor and disabled is something I want for more people? No. And that’s not something I’m prepared to apologize for.

I do not believe it’s moral to prefer ability and disability equally. Especially for your children. Because that requires that you prefer suffering and not suffering equally.

The bigger problem is coercion

The last problem I have with lumping genetic testing in with forcibly removing children from their homes because their parents are disabled or sterilization laws is that it makes a moral equivalence I think is wrong.

Allowing parents to find out whether a fetus has abnormalities and strapping someone to a gurney and ripping their reproductive organs out may have the same motivation, but they are not morally equivalent.

Eugenics might make us uncomfortable, but violating someone’s basic human right to bodily integrity and parenthood is truly intolerable.

It’s okay to prefer not suffering

Sheila Black passed XLH on to her children, having gotten incorrect medical advice about the likelihood they’d inherit it. It’s a painful disease, causing muscle aches, bone aches, and fatigue.

She asked her children how they felt about the disease.

Both of them spoke of the disability as almost, though not quite, a gift. “It has made me not fit in,” Eliza said, “but it has taught me empathy.”

“I am sometimes bitter about being so short,” Walker said, “and about the pain, but I am very glad to be alive.”

As it turns out, there was a 50/50 chance each of Sheila Black’s kids of inheriting the condition. As a sufferer herself, Black wishes none of them had gotten it. Does that make her a bad person? Of course not. It makes her a parent. No one wants unnecessary suffering for their children.

I do not believe it’s necessary to prefer ability and disability equally to have an equal preference for the abled and disabled. That is, you can dislike disability, think it’s “bad” even, and still love the disabled. You can still care for the disabled, believe they have equal rights, and advocate for them without advocating for disability itself.

One of Black’s children doesn’t have XLH. Black doesn’t love her healthier child more than her sicker ones. But she does prefer better health to worse health.

You can love the poor while hating poverty. You can care for the poor while fighting poverty. You can love the disabled while hating disability. You can care for the disabled while fighting to prevent disability. To call that eugenics, well, it means eugenics can’t be that bad.

“Denunciations of these things should be reserved for the ideology in question,” Jeffrey Tucker told me recently. He’s written and spoken extensively on the topic of eugenics. “An ideology has: a view of history, a view of what’s wrong, and a view of utopia. Petty attitudes and biases don’t really qualify. They can indicate a problem but they are not THE problem.”
The problem with eugenics isn’t that it’s ableist. It’s that it’s an ideology that encompasses racism, sexism, ableism. It advocates limiting women’s right to reproduce in order to create an all-white patriarchy.
Here’s why I care about whether we call things like CRISPR “eugenics.” I do not want to see the word eugenics used to thwart progress on tech that will reduce human suffering. That doesn’t seem moral to me.

One Comment

  1. Jennifer R.

    I think it’s odd that you think that Evangelical Christianity being supposedly opposed to eugenics means that eugenics is good, especially since in practice, most who profess themselves evangelical Christians actually favor practices that are in fact eugenics – such as ending support for the disabled in schools, ending social security disability, ending requirements to enable disabled people to actually exist in the world. The only way that Evangelicals actually oppose eugenics is anything that could allow women more freedom – they want women to bear endless children, and care for them, without social support. That’s their goal. The social model of disability goes against their thinking – thus they are, in fact, forcing many disabled people to die for their beliefs. That’s eugenics, albeit in a cloaked form.

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