Eugenics is the application of the laws of genetics for the improvement of the human race. However, with English scientist Sir Francis Galton as a pioneer in the use of statistics in genetic thought brings this morally complicated issue into the scientific realm of study. He defined eugenics as, “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” Classic literature from ancient times reveals that eugenics has it beginnings in the writings Plato's ideal society in his Republic. He describes the people of Sparta as killing defective babies by throwing them over cliffs in order to keep the race strong.
By means of selection society has accomplished remarkable improvements in domestic animals and cultivated plants towards the use and benefit of mankind and not necessarily from the view point of the animal or plant. Over time this arrangement has run into many difficulties. Impractical though it may sound imagine the alarm if a rancher was required to maintain and improve his herd of cattle with the following example from Genetics: A Survey of the Principles of Heredity:
First, all animals must be allowed to reproduce freely according to their own inclinations.
Second, any weak or deformed calves born must receive special care to keep them alive and allowed to reproduce if they are able.
Third, each bull must be allowed complete freedom in the choice of a mate, but one he has chosen he must not be allowed to mate with other.
Fourth, each mated pair should have the complete freedom either to reproduce as many offspring as they choose or to limit their reproduction.
Absurd as this is, say the authors, this is the core of the problem which faces eugenicists who would improve the human species. In spite of all these limitations though it is still possible to apply some genetic knowledge, which may or may not bring about improvement of the human species but at least prevent its deterioration through dysgenic forces.
Social agencies dedicated to the welfare of society encompass the greatest force behind the improvement of the conditions for the living generation. Institutions in education, medical, social welfare and religion function richly on government and philanthropic funding in the United States, however, not many exist with the primary focus on the future of mankind.
Although it’s reasonable to think that an improved environment will mean healthier babies who grow into more intelligent adults who might also reap the rewards of culturally transmitted improvements devised by their parents, unfortunately the fact remains that every generation does not inherit acquired characteristics in the sense that an improved gene pool would be transmitted. The physical and mental benefits acquired in a lifetime perish and each generation must start afresh.
Natural selection in humans eliminates the less fit genes and perpetuates those that are better at adapting-- defective genes are weeded out when an individual bearing them dies or because he or she is unable to reproduce and pass them on. Over the years various methods of counteracting genetic deterioration have been put into practice. Under some of these circumstances disagreements continue today concerning the rights of the individual vs. the rights of society. Over hundreds of years selection was very potent among young children, and a majority of them born were to die determined by their genetic fitness. With the advent of modern industrialization factors arose causing a trend in the reduction of the effectiveness of natural selection.
Medical science has eliminated the dread of many diseases which took heavy tolls in the past and are countered today with the use of preventative measures such as sanitation, quarantine, prophylaxis, vaccines and antibiotics. Indeed many who are reading this text right now wouldn't be alive except for these drugs. For example, many may have inherited a high susceptibility to bubonic plague, but they are able to live and reproduce because of vigilant public health measures. Surgery has allowed people to survive genetic deformities and propagate that otherwise would have been eliminated. For example, a woman who inherited a misshapen pelvis would have prevented a normal delivery. In ancient societies death would terminate her pregnancy but today's surgeons can easily deliver her child with little more complication than a normal childbirth. The benefits are numerous with infant and mortality rates reduced, extended life spans, and disabilities and suffering diminished, still even with the advancement of medicine the next generation because these advances have reduced the effects of natural selection. This is the core of today’s the eugenics problem. The benefits of medical science have been bought with a price and the costs are the increase in gene frequencies for the very conditions medicine is now correcting.
Although selection by death of individuals with defective genes is less extensive today there are still some selective processes at work due to deferential reproduction. These are people born with such extreme abnormalities that they cannot find a mate or choose not to marry. Fetal death still operates strongly where estimated percentages of all fertilized zygotes fail to make it to live birth, stillbirths and neonatal deaths which cover the first few days after birth. Out of those who make it though the neonatal period, about 3%, die before maturity, about 20 % never choose a mate and 10 % of those who do, will never have children. Because of this selection is not so much 'survival of the fittest' but has become 'the advantage of the genotype which reproduces.'
Some geneticists are concerned with this mitigation of natural selection and feel that the right to live doesn't imply the right to reproduce without limitation, especially when the probabilities are high for defective children. Under these circumstances they argue that the rights of the individual infringes on the rights of society and try to justify compulsory limitations on reproduction. Out of this heated debate several methods have been proposed.
For many years it was the practice to segregate in institutions in order to prevent the reproduction of persons showing extreme mental abnormalities to reduce the flow of defective gene into future generations. The practice of segregation by institutionalization as well as the prevention of reproduction was utilized in the beginning because of the high degree of care needed by those with severe mental abnormalities however, recent de-institutionalization has resulted in prolific reproduction representing a large input of genes into the gene pool.
Surgical sterilization of those with serious inherited mental defects was proposed and in use until the mid 20th century. Compulsory sterilization is considered a dangerous policy today. It was widely used and abused during World War II. Laws in twenty-eight states in the 1970's permitted such sterilizations, but relatively few were performed. The abuse of compulsory sterilization of Nazi Germany showed just how dangerous a policy this practice is. It has been reported that in some cases extreme 'ugliness' (however that was defined) was enough cause for sterilization. Qualities that some find desirable or undesirable at present might be viewed very differently a thousand years from now.
Many men and women today are choosing to undergo voluntary sterilization after they have as many children as they desire. In 1970 and for the first time in US history Congress appropriated money for improved methods of birth control; a far cry from the Comstockery which only a few decades ago could send a doctor to prison for educating a woman about birth control unless her life was threatened by pregnancy. These Comstock Laws were passed at a time when it was feared that no one would want to have any children if it was preventable and the country wouldn’t survive due to poor population growth. Even with the advances in birth control methods there is a deluge of so many babies that some call for ways to make people want fewer children. Cheap and efficient birth control with no harmful side effects, experts say, is of paramount importance to the world nowadays to avoid the possibility of an inundation by future populations.
Control By Law
The tradition of liberty and the idea that the State might take over control of such a personal right as reproduction is deeply objectionable and almost beyond belief. Many proponents believe the time will come when the welfare of society of uncontrolled reproduction will result in government regulation. Ideas come up from time to time about limiting reproduction by the number of children allowed to couples. One proposal included applying for marriage license that included an examination for the probability of genetic defects. Many suggest denying the right of reproduction along with severe penalties imposed with compulsory abortions required. Control of reproduction by law is nothing new. Those in mental institutions were denied the right to reproduce and there are laws prohibiting marriage between close relatives. These laws are of ancient origin and appeared because many realized that these unions increased the chances of genetic defects. Marriage between relatives, or inbreeding, always results in increased homozygosity in offspring. The harmful recessive genes surface however many note that these couplings have a purging effect for a species as whole, by eliminating harmful genes when defective homozygotes die or fail to reproduce. It’s interesting to note inbreeding among animals, where this occurs to a much greater degree than among humans, this purging effect doesn't take place. The laws are 'good' in this respect preventing the immediate appearance of many defective children, but they have no long-term eugenic value in lowering the incidence of harmful genes in a population. However they can establish a governmental right to prohibit reproduction for the welfare of society.
At present most First World societies generally prefer voluntary restrictions in reproduction as a eugenic measure since tests are becoming rapidly available to determine whether either parent may be a carrier of harmful genes. For example a man has seen his father go through the agonies of Huntington's chorea will certainly not want a similar fate to befall any of his children. A genetic counselor can present the risks and some parents may be relieved to learn that the chances are almost zero in some cases. At other times parents may be told that the chance in one in 16, or one in 8, or one in 4. At some point they may decide the risk is too great and turn to other methods of reproduction such as artificial insemination from established sperm banks or in vitro fertilization.
Englishman Thomas Robert Malthus was the first to foresee the effects of an exploding population. Acknowledging that all animals including humans have reproductive potentials far greater than is needed to replace them he determined that there must be some check on either the rate of reproduction or the rate of survival. In 1798 he published a mathematical analyses showing the human potential to increase in numbers occurs in a geometric ratio, yet the increase in food supply happens only in an arithmetic ratio. He discovered that there had been 254 famines in recorded history that were frequently followed by plagues. Together these events caused a sharp reduction in populations serving as a natural control. The world's population was stable at about 5 million until the development of farming when it jumped to around 100 million, still he postulated that this was balanced by high death rates, especially of small children, many who died before they were old enough to reproduce and very few living to see their fortieth birthday. During the industrial age another leap in numbers occurred and in 1700 global populations climbed to roughly 600 million. While it required about 2 million years for human populations to increase to 1 billion, a figure reached in 1830, it took only a brief 100 years in comparison for a second billion to be added. Three decades later, in 1960 there were three billion people populating the planet. By 1972 the figure reached 3.8 billion. These figures impress upon many the urgency of the situation, yet many today think the population problem is a joke and ridicule the ideas of Malthus as antiquated nonsense. Some seek to rely on technology to solve this problem and believe in the possibility of exporting excess populations to other planets. More than likely it will be either human intelligence or the forces of nature that will intervene, as food supplies remain concentrated in parts of the world while others live on the edge of starvation. Probably the most important factors in limiting world population has been overlooked too often and that's the depletion of oxygen in the air as humans continue to pollute the air and water, as well as denuding the planet of it primary source of oxygen, plants.
Voluntary Population Reduction
One means of reducing population has been to reward and encourage women in non-familial roles, to see that they have equal opportunities for advancement or graduate education, jobs and salaries equivalent to those of men. Governments could encourage people to remain childless or have only small families perhaps by levying a child tax, reverse current tax policies. Some would like to stop giving income tax exemptions for children and others would like to see the government stop discriminating against couples in which both parents work. More recently there has been some of effort made in the area of reformation of the welfare system. The birth rate in the United States has been moving steadily downward. In 1957 it peaked at 25.3 and has shown a slight decline. In 1965 it was down to 19.7 and in 1971 it was only a little over 17 per thousand, but even this rate is too high because there is broader base of population to support.
The eugenics problem is one of hopeful realization of the urgency of the global population problem. What is needed is not just a reduction in rate growth but an actual reduction in numbers because many scientists believe that the point was passed long ago at which the total population can be adequately supported.
Winchester, A.M. "Sex Determination." Genetics: A Survey of the Principles of Heredity. Ed. H. Bently Glass, June Shepard. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972, p 557-572.