Thursday, March 4, 2010

There's always a dark side - even to progress

Someone asked me if I knew that Margaret Sanger had been a "crazy eugenicist". This led me to a discuss of abortion and the Human Genome Project. Another of those cautionary tales? The following post is expanded from my reply and is a bit rambling.

Yes I knew that Margaret Sanger was a crazy eugenicist. It is amazing how many people were in the 20s and 30s. It was all the rage. You can find it in the writings of some of the most esteemed people in Canada. It was a theoretical position that came out of Darwin's evolutionary theory - survival of the fittest as social Darwinism. Humans just decided to help nature along. Tommy Douglas, for example, wrote his Master's of Divinity thesis on the religious justification for sterilization of "defective persons". Nellie McClung, she of the "women are persons" case, supported some forms of eugenics. Alberta was the last province to strike its eugenics laws from the books in 1972. In 1995, Leilani Muir successfully sued the Alberta government for wrongful sterilization when she was 10 years old. Anyone who had Down's Syndrome, was mentally ill, or cosnidered socially disruptive (read prostitutes, criminals), etc. could be sterilized. There is a play by Betty Lambert called Jennie's Story that deals with this issue. It is so sad and angry. There are a couple of books that give us some idea of just how prevalent the eugenics movement was: Our own master race : eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 by Angus McLaren (1990), and War against the weak : eugenics and America's campaign to create a master race by Edwin Black (2003). Just a place to start, if anyone is interested.

I see the Holocaust as a logical outcome of eugenics thinking. In fact, it was the Holocaust that sent eugenics theory underground. It horrified too many people who then had to rethink their attitudes. However, it is still around in other forms. All you have to do is look at sociologists who differentiate between the "races" based on IQ levels to see a masked eugenics agenda.

One of the real dangers of our scientific revolutions, despite the good that it does for humans, is that there is always the flip side. For example, amniocentesis was a leap ahead from one perspective. It allows us to make personal decisions about whether we want to bring a child with severe birth abnormalities into the world. On the other hand, it allows people to abort a child just because it is the "wrong" sex. If these choices are coerced, as in China's one child policy, it becomes a real problem. The right to abortion should be a personal decision, not coerced by anyone, just as noone should be coerced into having a child that they don't want.

The Human Genome project is an amazing feat of scientific engineering/progress. People love it because we will eventually be able to figure out - and possibly fix - genetic diseases like Huntington's Chorea, MS, Alzheimer's, in the womb. Sounds like a good thing. But, of course, this means that we can also start messing around with the genes and change the brain functioning, change hair colour, eye colour, - all the things that are embedded into our genetic code. It is the new eugenics theory, writ large.

The amazing thing is that we don't let nature takes it course. We keep babies alive today who would have been miscarried years ago, and call it a "miracle" of modern science. Miscarriage, I still believe, is nature's way of telling us that there is something wrong. My fahter-in-law had heart problems that would have killed him in his early 60s years ago. Instead, they were fixed. Then he developed Alzheimer's and descended into that hell until he died. As his primary caregiver in the last 5 months of his life, I could only say, his heart problems should have taken him. On the other hand, I have a son and two nieces who wouldn't have survived the first year of their lives if it hadn't been for medical breakthroughs. Damned if we do, damned if we don't. It is why there must always be a caveat on our scientific breakthroughs/progress.There is always a dark side. And the eugenics movement, social engineering, whatever you want to call it, is definitely the dark side and should be guarded against at all costs.

Science fiction is one form of writing that deals with the dangers of all of our scientific breakthroughs. For example, Star Trek has done more than one episode on this subject. The original series had an episode called Khan that was about genetic engineering that created a race of superhumans who then tried to take over the enitre planet. Then Deep Space Nine did an episode about how its doctor, Bashir, had been illegally genetically engineered to be brilliant at the request of his parents, two brilliant people who couldn't stand the idea of having a less than brilliant child. Both these episodes are worth looking at.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for technological breakthroughs and innovation. We always need to know why and how. We can envision a future different from the one that we live in. We want to survive at all costs. We have to make decisions about how we use these scientific breakthroughs. Probably the greatest strength of the theologian and the moral philosopher is that they bring the issues of values about human life to the forefront. However, they don't always agree and they are not always right. They are as bound by the social constructs of the eras in which they live as we are by ours. Just remember the story of Tommy Douglas, the beloved father of Canada's health care system.

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