Apple-Pie Eugenics

See if you can guess the source of this quote. "It is better for all the world . . . [if] society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles is enough." If you think that this quote came from a Nazi document, you're wrong. It's from Oliver Wendell Holmes's 1927 majority opinion in Buck v. Bell that upheld a Virginia law mandating the sterilization of the "feebleminded." Twenty years later, Holmes's words were thrown back in our face by Nazi defendants in the Nuremberg trials. You see, while the Nazis' worst crimes may have ended at Auschwitz, they "began on Long Island." That's the conclusion of a new book, War against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race written by Edwin Black, who contends that American "corporate philanthropies helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Hitler and Mengele." Eugenics, which literally means "good birth," originally referred to the use of selective breeding to "improve" the human race. Of course, what was meant by "improve" reflected the racism and bigotry of the eugenicists. Blacks, Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans, the retarded, and even people with brown hair were the targets of the "improvers." Thus, between 1900 and the mid-sixties, "hundreds of thousands of Americans . . . were not permitted to continue their families by reproducing." Black compares it to "ethnic cleansing," and he's right. The tools of American eugenics included forcible sterilization, commitment to mental institutions, prohibitions against marriage, and even dissolution of already existing marriages. One Michigan legislator went so far as to introduce a bill calling for the electrocution of severely retarded infants. Eventually, American eugenics, with help from the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, Margaret Sanger, and others, found its way to Germany. While "Nazi eugenics quickly outpaced American eugenics in both velocity and ferocity," Black writes, the connection between the two was never lost. As one American eugenicist told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "the Germans are beating us at our own game." The Holocaust and other crimes of the Third Reich made eugenics a bad word, and the American connection was quickly swept under the rug. But the attempt to play God "never really stopped." Today it takes the form of "human genomic science and corporate globalization." Instead of racist declarations, we have "polished PR campaigns" that hold out the promises of biotech: miracle cures and ever-increasing life expectancies. While the word eugenics is never used, that's what it is. We are intent on eliminating "imperfection" from the gene pool. Even today, children whose "deformities" are discovered in utero are rarely permitted to be born. And as genetic technology improves, the list of those whom Black calls the "never-born" will continue to expand. If the "abolition of man" is to be stopped, this story must be told. Christians need to pull the truth about eugenics out from underneath the rug and hold it up as a reminder of where playing God leads us. Six decades of denial is enough. For further reading and information: Edwin Black, War against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003). Richard Pachter, "History of eugenics offers lessons for future," Miami Herald, 15 September 2003. Dan Vergano, "Book explores eugenics' origins," USA Today, 14 September 2003. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man(HarperSanFrancisco, 2001). Charles Colson, "Can We Prevent the Abolition of Man?" address given to congressional staff, 1 May 2001. Charles A. Donovan, "Focusing on the Family," BreakPoint Online, 19 February 2003. Visit the Council for Biotechnology Policy for more information on bioethics. Subscribe to the Biotech Update, a free e-newsletter.
  1. Ben Mitchell, "Hurtling Toward Eugenics . . . Again," Council for Biotechnology Policy, 27 February 2002.
Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Bioengagement: Making a Christian Difference through Bioethics Today(Eerdmans, 2000). Stephen S. Hall, Merchants of Immortality (Houghton Mifflin, 2003).


Chuck Colson


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