The New Eugenics

Published April 5, 2001

The Catholic Difference

LONDON. Just before I began to speak to some twenty members of the British House of Commons and House of Lords on the Pope’s analysis of the challenges to twenty-first democracy, Ian Paisley, the veteran anti-Catholic bigot and political leader from Northern Ireland, briefly stuck his head into the room to see what was afoot. In retrospect, I was somewhat relieved that I didn’t notice him at the time. The temptation to say, “Do come in, Dr. Paisley, and hear what the Whore of Babylon is plotting” might have proven irresistible.

In the odd twists and turns of post-modern politics, Ian Paisley is, oddly enough, something of a Catholic ally in the United Kingdom. For as Britain rushes ahead of the United States in the culture of death sweepstakes, legalizing the cloning of human embryos for “research” purposes, Paisley and like-minded Protestant fundamentalists are among the Church’s political allies in what has been, so far, an unsuccessful bid to slow down Prime Minister Tony Blair’s efforts to accelerate Great Britain’s head-long surge into the brave new world.

When I asked the newly-created Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor what he thought lay behind the government’s determination to steamroller a cloning bill through Parliament, the cardinal said he thought it had a lot to do with a pragmatic streak in the English character. What can be done should be done, on this view. Combine that pragmatism with the probability that science has replaced the Church of England and the monarchy as an object of British veneration; add to the mix the fact that (as the cardinal put it) British culture no longer has any concept of absolute moral norms; consider the enormous financial gains to be harvested from the revolution of our genetic knowledge — and the result is predictable. On the U.K. bio-tech front, anything goes.

Lord David Alton, one of the heroes of the Anglophone pro-life movement, has not given up the fight by any manner of means, but a depressing sense of inexorability permeates the debate about the bio-tech future in Britain. A similar sense of fighting the inevitable drew some like-minded American intellectuals together a few months back to consider what might be done beyond ringing our hands. As I explained to my British colleagues, one idea to emerge from these Washington-based conversations was to reintroduce the word “eugenics” in polite society. For that is what the truly objectionable parts of the bio-tech revolution are about: the eugenic re-manufacture of a more desirable human condition through the manufacture of human beings. Eighty years ago, “eugenics” was thought a profoundly humanitarian goal, and so the handicapped were sterilized by government order (as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously—or infamously—put it, three generations of imbeciles was enough). Nazism, taking the eugenic movement to its logical and demonic conclusion, put the terms “eugenics” on the shelf after World War II. But the eugenic project continued. The pressures on parents today to abort unborn children liable to Downs’ Syndrome are but one example.

We should call these things by their right names. To turn begetting into manufacture in order to get a better “product” is eugenics; it is inhuman, and it is wicked. To design babies to meet the “needs” of parents is eugenics; it, too, is wicked and inhuman. To create indisputably human creatures for the sole purpose of experimenting on them and then disposing of them—which is what happens with and to so-called “research embryos”—is wicked; and it is a crucial element in the new, 21st century eugenics project.

In trying to draw a bright line at cloning, I suggested to my British interlocutors, we were defending the deepest meaning of our humanity against the excesses of misguided compassion. I reminded them that the late social critic, C. Wright Mills, very much a man of the left, used to inveigh against what he called “crackpot realism:” a politics that so denied the role of ideals in human affairs that it became a monstrous parody of political realism.

Today’s equivalent is crackpot humanitarianism. It should be called by its right name—“eugenics.” And it should by rejected for what it is—the destruction of the human in the name of humanitarianism.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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