After Bell sterilized Carrie Buck, he was told “a hundred years from now… your descendants may well be proud.”

And other reasons Adam Cohen is wrong about eugenics and gene editing

On February 14, 2017, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Academy of Medicine (NAM) released a report entitled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance.” The report proclaimed that, with caution, limited clinical tests of genome editing should go forward. But human genome editing is controversial. Many international reports and laws support bans or limitations on genome editing.

The report departs from these internationally accepted ethics and laws, wrote the Center for Genetics and Society. (CGS). CGS is a science and bioethics group advocating “responsible uses and effective social governance” of human genetics. CGS put out official comments and a blog post on the report.  CGS also mentions the possibility of eugenics.

On March 17, 2017, Adam Cohen – author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck – began an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with the words:

We entered a new phase as a species when Chinese scientists altered a human embryo to remove a potentially fatal blood disorder — not only from the baby, but all of its descendants…Last month, the scientific establishment weighed in. A National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine joint committee endorsed embryo editing aimed at genes that cause serious diseases when there is “no reasonable alternative.” …But the committee was also right to support limited embryo editing. This time around, eugenics could be a force for good.

He concludes the op-ed with:

Again, that need not be a bad thing. Twentieth century eugenics has rightly been called a “war on the weak” — its goal was to stop people with conditions like Huntington’s disease from reproducing. Twenty-first century eugenics can enable people with the Huntington’s gene to have children without it. The new eugenics can be a war for the weak.

Cohen’s op-ed, as disability rights journalist David Perry notes, “seems to miss the lessons of the history he synthesizes in his book… Any eugenic gene editing process that is constructed in our culture will reflect the ableist reality in which they are created.”

Further, Cohen misses several other points.

Eugenics was not just state-sanctioned sterilization. Eugenics was not just about preventing “the unfit” from having children. It was, and is, also about immigration, “racial purity,” and eliminating the “mentally defective” population through any means – whether by institutionalizing people judged as such, sterilizing them, preventing their marriage, or in the case of the Nazis, also murdering them.  Eugenicists were not worried about the people with any kinds of hereditary conditions, real or perceived, and far more keen on eliminating the “threat” to the sanctity of American society and economics.

Cohen asks the question if eugenics can be used for good. A colleague told Dr. John H. Bell after Bell sterilized Carrie Buck, “a hundred years from now you will still have a place in this history of which your descendants may well be proud.” Eugenicists believed they had the superior knowledge to know what was best for society, doing public good, based on pseudoscience and their own intensely biased beliefs. They believed future generations would be proud of their work – future generations that contained no “mental defectives,” generations that had been altered by them.

Cohen said “yes” in answer to his question, that the new eugenics can be for people with genetic conditions – that eugenics can be used for good. But he acknowledges that future generations would be permanently altered.

There is no such thing as good eugenics, and Cohen misses that point by a wide mark.