The "Eugenics Card" and the Culture Wars


Legal historian Paul Lombardo, author of the excellent Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell, has posted a very interesting looking new article to the Social Sciences Research Network. Here's the abstract for "Disability, Eugenics, and the Culture Wars":

The eugenics movement provided the motive for dozens of laws that remained in force for more than a century in the United States, a significant number of which specifically targeted people with disabilities for legally sanctioned discrimination. Similar laws were adopted around the world, perhaps most notably as part of Hitler's prelude to the Holocaust. Consequently, we tend to associate the word "eugenics" with all things evil. Yet the underlying message of eugenicists was popular for so long not solely because it denoted coercive legislation but more often because it signaled a hopeful future devoid of social problems. This paper describes how the word "eugenics" is now coming back into common use, and how it has been revived in the service of political objectives, divorced from the period in which it developed and the meaning it had within its earlier historical context. The resulting distortions—directly traceable to the ongoing "culture war" over reproductive rights—suggests that we should be careful when we play the "eugenics card" lest rhetorical zeal eliminate the possibility for honest debate.

Lombardo touched on similar points when I interviewed him last year about Three Generations, No Imbeciles. Here's one such exchange:

Q: Does the idea of eugenics still have any appeal?

A: Most people, if given the option, would vote to have less of a burden of social welfare costs and lower taxes. That's a popular idea for all of us. The argument that's made during the Buck case is that you get there by doing away with the people who generate those costs.

The real problem is that we all still feel that way today. Not that we want to be Nazis, and not that we want to re-enact eugenic laws. But we all still are looking for solutions to social problems and ways of managing the inevitable social burdens of crime, poverty, and disease. The hope that we can find those solutions is of course still with us—and should be, I think—but what we use as a means toward those is of course the question. I argue in this book that one of the things we shouldn't use is the power of government through coercive medicine. When governments start deciding who can have children, they almost always botch it.

Download his article here. Read my interview here.