Being judged for standing out in ways other than what society demands of us is unfortunately a fact of life. Constricting societal norms play a major role in the existing disparity between people with disabilities and abled people. We all know that a hierarchical-type system that establishes one group of individuals as “better” than another is wrong. The eugenics movement is an example of this system and is sadly still prevalent today.
Eugenics promoted the segregation and oppression of people within the disability community. According to Garland Allen, eugenics involved the promotion of healthy living and social purity. Where eugenicists had the ability to control the breeding of the more “fit” members of society to reproduce, he explains that eugenicists implemented this through public education, institutionalization, and in some situations, forced sexual sterilization.
The eugenics movement began as a method to eliminate the “unwanted” population from society through selective reproduction. Women could only reproduce if they were mentally and intellectually fit, able-bodied, and could improve society. One of the main groups labeled as “unfit” included women with mental and physical disabilities. Eugenics categorizes people with disabilities, people of color, and minority groups as “defected,” which ultimately marginalizes them.
The issue was very prevalent in various provinces of Canada and is still happening, despite the banning of the legislations! The Sexual Sterilization Act was abolished in 1972 in Alberta and a year later in British Columbia. However, New Eugenics is a newly evolving concept. Researchers argue that this form of eugenics really isn’t much different from the original eugenics movement.
Defining ‘new eugenics’
Felipe Vizcarrondo writes that this modern form of eugenics claims to be different from old eugenics, since it is no longer “unscientific and coercive, concerned with the improvement of race.” It’s more than simply controlling the genetic traits of a baby, but entails asking questions such as, “What are we willing to do to ensure that the children will be ‘well-born’?” This type of thinking leads to using genetic technology, such as prenatal testing, to control the hereditary traits of future generations. Which eventually results in a genetic genocide of the disabled population!
It may seem apparent that this process of the complete elimination of the disability community is outrageous! However, there are two different perspectives that scholars have discussed. Gerald O’Brien distinguishes between the two sides in his article titled, ‘Eugenics, genetics, and the minority group of disabilities.’ He writes that the concept of new eugenics is either “utopian dreams of a world without disability” or “dystopian nightmares of a world devoid and highly contemptuous of people with disabilities.”
One of the main reasons new and old eugenics should be viewed as interchangeable is because of the similarities in the discourse for the two. For example, Vizcarrondo writes, “…new eugenics proposes to create better opportunities for children through individual human enhancement and undesirable trait elimination, rather than to improve the species.”
Using terms such as “human enhancement” and “undesirable trait elimination” implies that having a disability is abnormal. I believe that this phrase is synonymous with the definition of the original eugenics. Vizcarrondo is not the only scholar who uses degrading terms like the ones listed above. Charles Epstein continues to use similar words such as “abnormal” and “fetal abnormality” throughout his article. Although these are used in medical contexts, I believe that this is where the problem starts.
I feel that modern geneticists are simply attempting to ignore how new and old eugenics are almost identical. Having a disability is only considered “abnormal” because of society’s stereotypical norms. Being unique should not equate to being abnormal or defective!
Genetic practices and eugenic ideologies
Johannes Reinders, Tim Stainton and Trevor Parmenter explain the various medical practices that are associated with eugenic ideologies in their article titled, ‘The Quiet Progress of the New Eugenics‘.
“…ending the lives of infants that are born with a severely disabling conditions (“mercy killing”), of future infants that will be born with a disabling condition when carried to term (“preventing suffering”), and of other persons with IDD [intellectual and developmental disability] directly or indirectly subject to practices of euthanasia or physician assisted suicide”.Johannes Reinders, Tim Stainton and Trevor R. Parmenter
These three medical practices have negative implications on people with disabilities. They portray how parents and medical practitioners have developed a habit of viewing these situations from the “best interest” of people with disabilities.
New eugenics is, unfortunately, becoming a familiar method practiced in medical settings. I acknowledge that the new eugenics debate is difficult to comprehend. But, it’s essential to know both sides of the argument to realize how it negatively affects the disability community.
Many medical practices that use eugenic ideologies, including prenatal diagnosis and the abortion of fetuses born with disabilities, are obvious threats to the disability community. These practices, along with the demeaning language used to refer to modern eugenic methods, demonstrate the oppression of the disabled population. This ultimately leads to the genetic elimination of people with disabilities.
Educating the general population of the appalling acts of old eugenics, elaborating on new eugenic practices, and establishing the fact that the two are indeed very similar, will reduce the marginalization of people with disabilities. This will hopefully bring forth the opportunity for a more broad-minded society, accepting of all individuals.