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Eugenics Redux

When most Americans hear the word “eugenics,” what probably comes to mind is a doctor wearing an SS uniform.

Sadly, as I have said before however, the Third Reich learned much of what it knew about eugenics from Americans. It was Americans who showed the Nazis it was legally possible to prevent the “wrong kind of people” from reproducing. And it was Americans who launched what journalist Edwin Black called the “war against the weak,” a war that was supposed to have ended with the fall of the Third Reich.

Except that it didn’t, as a recent New York Times story made frighteningly clear. The story was about North Carolina’s debate on how to compensate the victims of its mandatory sterilization program. Between 1933 and 1977, the state sterilized an estimated 7,600 people, almost entirely on the basis of social workers’ say-so.

The decisions to involuntarily sterilize people were based on a combination of IQ tests and the individual’s personal history. For instance, when Charles Holt, who had been described as having a “low mentality,” prepared to leave a juvenile mental institution, his release was conditioned on having a vasectomy.

His story was typical. What the victims had in common was poverty and the vulnerability that goes with it. North Carolina, like other states, saw eugenics as a way to save money. And it was even endorsed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

What makes the North Carolina program especially frightening is that it lasted until 1977! Seventy percent of the sterilizations occurred after World War II and the revelations about Nazi programs.

Astonishing! And North Carolina wasn’t alone; 31 other states were involved, as well as Norway and Sweden. More recently, millions of people around the world have been involuntarily sterilized as part of U.N.-sanctioned attempt to reduce birth rates in poor countries.

All of which prompts the obvious question: What did we learn from earlier attempts to play God? The honest answer is “be more [careful and] discreet.” What Black has dubbed “newgenics” still seeks to use genetics to create “fitter” people. Not only in the sense of “designer” babies, but other schemes that elite planners talk about.

What we have become frighteningly better at is identifying potential genetic defects before a person is born. While our definition of “defect” has, thankfully, moved beyond the crude racism of earlier times, we are increasingly intolerant of less-than-perfect children. Genetic testing and abortion, for example, have turned people with Down Syndrome into an endangered species.

While discretion would never allow us to call the disabled the “wrong kind of people,” our actions belie our words. While we mouth platitudes about all children being special, science, with our consent, is taking us to a place where parents can prevent having kids in special ed.

Folks, in our “Doing the Right Thing” series on ethics, Dr. Christopher Hook of the Mayo Clinic chillingly warned, “Eugenics is back.” Well, now it seems it never left us in the first place.

To its credit, North Carolina has apologized for its eugenics program. But what horrors lie ahead with “newgenics” if Christians remain silent? One thing is for sure, there will be millions of souls who will not be around to hear the words “We’re sorry.”

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication date: December 15, 2011

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