Sunday, June 10, 2012

Eugenics, I genics

Shorter Ross Douthat:
Is the reproductive selection by some parents today entirely different from the eugenics of an earlier era?
This is another one of those cases where the Times copy department has strangely written their own Shorter. But you can't find it online, it's only on the page 3 teaser section in the paper paper.

The answer to the question, needless to say, is probably no for the Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, but yes for the rest of us.

It is entirely different. The eugenics of the early 20th century was fascist in character, even if many persons of an otherwise progressive bent (Theodore Roosevelt and Margaret Sanger) favored it.  That "otherwise progressive", by the way, doesn't mean they weren't racists, because they were. It was concerned with what the state ought to do about other people's children—not ours!
Blastocysts, closed and open. From Stem Cell Bioethics.
The folks now planning to bless their heirs with longer legs and a tighter brain than they have themselves as soon as the science permits are working out a private-enterprise program to do something about their own children—not anybody else's. Except to the extent that one of the benefits they hope to score from it is the admiration of everybody else of their blonde, straight-nosed, Yale-alumnus scions, alongside that of an amusement for their early adult years and a staff of support for their old age.

You could say it is boboist in character, since it is the behavior of people imagined by Ross's partner-in-pandritry David Brooks. Supposing there are any such folks, at any rate.

In the real world as we currently know it, there are basically two legitimate reasons for choosing or rejecting to have a baby based on its genes: parents-to-be practicing in vitro fertilization may use genetic information to decide which of their blastocysts they should toss out, assuming they don't want sextuplets; and some women may choose to have an abortion rather than keep a fetus doomed to intense suffering and an early death.

Oh! Did you say "abortion"? Alternative shorter Ross Douthat:
Nazis practiced forced abortion, so anybody who gets an abortion is a Nazi.
 It's just the same old column after all.

N.B. I was able to write the foregoing virtually without looking at the column itself, on the basis of the teaser alone. Having read it, I need to make only a couple of further remarks.

First, the opening paragraph is an appeal to an article from the Yale Alumni Magazine. I initially assumed it was there to remind us that Ross went to Yale—to let us know, as it were, that when he finally mates with that chunky Reese Witherspoon, nobody needs to worry about how smart the baby will be. But Wikipedia tells us he went to Harvard, raising an irrelevant but fascinating question: What kind of person not a Yale alumnus could possibly find time to read the Yale Alumni Magazine? (I know: he only looks at it for the nude pictures.)

Second, in the sentence on which the teaser was based, he gets part of the point about the difference between the fascist state and the hopeful mother:
Is this sort of “liberal eugenics,” in which the agents of reproductive selection are parents rather than the state, entirely different from the eugenics of Fisher’s era, which forced sterilization on unwilling men and women?
But he misses the rest of it: the all-important difference between their kids and our kids, allowing him to move straight into his false equivalency through an idiotic strawman—
From a rigorously pro-choice perspective, the in utero phase is a space in human development where disease and disability can be eradicated, and our impulse toward perfection given ever-freer rein, without necessarily doing any violence to human dignity and human rights
—to the metaphysical peroration on what makes us just like Nazis:
First, a relentless desire for mastery and control, not only over our own lives but over the very marrow and sinew of generations yet unborn. And second, a belief in our own fundamental goodness, no matter to what ends our mastery is turned.
(Failing to distinguish the liberal belief that people are fundamentally good from the conservative belief that I'm fundamentally good and frack you...)

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