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Health

None dare call it eugenics

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAugust 19, 2011 3:59 AM

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In the comments below Phillip Lemkyobserves:

Hi Razib. I find disturbing all this talk of assortative mating and biological castes, as it sounds eerily similar to eugenics. Please correct me if I’m mistaken to be making this connection.

This is a common response to some of the things mooted on this weblog. Freddie deBoer even sent me a peculiar email last year expressing how appalled he was at some of the topics and comments in these parts (if you know Freddie's internet reputation, this is not surprising behavior). First, I don't know what people mean by "eugenics." Here is the first sentence in Wikipedia for the eugenics entry:

Eugenics is the "applied science or the bio-social movement which advocates the use of practices aimed at improving the genetic composition of a population", usually referring to human populations....

Wikipedia isn't authoritative, and colloquial definitions can deviate from "official" definitions. As a rule I don't generally talk much about state coercion or manipulation of the reproduction of the citizenry, so I don't see that I'm talking about classical eugenics.

But, it does seem that there are eugenical implications in the mass action of human behavior and the flexibility of choices which modern humans have.

Consider this long article in The New York Times Magazine, The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy:

Even some people who support abortion rights admit to feeling queasy about reduction to a singleton. “I completely respect and support a woman’s choice,” one commentator wrote on UrbanBaby.com, referring to a woman who said she reduced her pregnancy to protect her marriage and finances. One fetus was male, the other female, and the woman eliminated the male because she already had a son. “Something about that whole situation just seemed unethical to me,” the commentator continued. “I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I terminated my daughter’s perfectly healthy twin brother.” ... The justification for eliminating some fetuses in a multiple pregnancy was always to increase a woman’s chance of bringing home a healthy baby, because medical risks rise with every fetus she carries. The procedure, which is usually performed around Week 12 of a pregnancy, involves a fatal injection of potassium chloride into the fetal chest. The dead fetus shrivels over time and remains in the womb until delivery. Some physicians found reduction unnerving, particularly because the procedure is viewed under ultrasound, making it quite visually explicit, which is not the case with abortion. Still, even some doctors who opposed abortion agreed that it was better to save some fetuses than risk them all. ... In 2004, however, Evans publicly reversed his stance, announcing in a major obstetrics journal that he now endorsed twin reductions. For one thing, as more women in their 40s and 50s became pregnant (often thanks to donor eggs),

they pushed for two-to-one reductions for social reasons.

Evans understood why these women didn’t want to be in their 60s worrying about two tempestuous teenagers or two college-tuition bills. He noted that many of the women were in second marriages, and while they wanted to create a child with their new spouse, they did not want two, especially if they had children from a previous marriage. Others had deferred child rearing for careers or education, or were single women tired of waiting for the right partner. Whatever the particulars, these patients concluded that they lacked the resources to deal with the chaos, stereophonic screaming and exhaustion of raising twins. ... As word spread, a stream of patients called Wapner’s office, scheduling reductions to a singleton. A few months later, after the last patient of the day left, the sonographer who had worked with Wapner for nearly 20 years stopped at his office. She told me what happened next, on condition of anonymity because she doesn’t want her relatives to know everything her work entails:

“I told him I just wasn’t comfortable doing a termination of a healthy baby for social reasons,

and that if we were going to do a lot of these elective reductions, I thought he should bring in someone else who was more comfortable. From the beginning, I had wrestled with the whole idea of doing reductions, because I was raised in the church. And after a lot of soul searching, I had decided there were truly good medical reasons to reducing higher-order multiples to twins. But I had a hard time reconciling doing reductions two to one. So I said to Dr. Wapner, ‘Is this really the business we want to be in?’ ” ... Who doesn’t want to create a more certain and comfortable future for themselves and their children? The more that science makes that possible, the more it has inflated our expectations of what family life should be. We’ve come to believe that the improvements are not only our due but also our responsibility. Just look at the revolution in attitudes toward selecting egg or sperm donors. In the 1970s, when sperm donation took off, most clients were married women with infertile husbands; many couples didn’t want to know about the source of the donation. Today patients in the United States can choose donors based not only on their height, hair color and ethnicity but also on their academic and athletic accomplishments, temperament, hairiness and even the length of a donor’s eyelashes.

I think it's kind of silly to get worried about the long term impact of assortative mating when biotech and reproductive intervention is such a banal part of the existence of many people alive today. As many couples delay having children into their late 30s more and more regular people naturally begin to think in a eugenical manner on a personal and individual level. The state is not driving any of this, and neither is society (in fact, many of the couples above who opt for reduction of twins to singletons keep that decision to themselves for fear of social ostracism). Consider this fragment of the above article: "A. and her partner had been together 15 years when they decided to get serious about having children. Because both women were 45...." Two women who waited 15 years and are now 45 are going to view the "rational" calculus of having children very differently from a couple in their mid-20s.

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