Holocaust

Holocaust The Lebensborn Project The topic of eugenics cannot be discussed without encountering the Holocaust, but this is as it should be. When contemporary geneticists, genetics counselors and clinical geneticists wonder why it is that genetics receives special attention from those concerned with ethics, the answer is simple and can be found in history. The events which led to the sterilization, torture and murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and children of mixed racial heritage in the years just before and during the era of the Third Reich in Germany were rooted firmly in the science of genetics (Muller-Hill, 1988). Rooted not in fringe, lunatic science but in the mainstream of reputable genetics in what was indisputably the most advanced scientific and technological society of its day. The pursuit of genetic purity in the name of public health led directly to Dachau, Treblinka, Ravensbruck and Auschwitz.

As early as 1931 influential geneticists such as Fritz Lenz were referring to National Socialism as applied biology in their textbooks (Caplan, 1992). As difficult as it is for many contemporary scientists to accept (Caplan, 1992; Kater, 1992), mainstream science provided a good deal of enthusiastic scientific support for the virulent racism that fueled the killing machine of the Third Reich. When the Nazis came to power they were obsessed with securing the racial purity of the German people. The medical and biomedical communities in Germany not only endorsed this concern with negative eugenics, they had fostered it. Racial hygiene swept through German biology, public health, medicine and anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s, long before the Nazis came to power (Weiss, 1987, Muller-Hill, 1988; Proctor, 1988; Kater, 1992).

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Many in the medical profession urged the Nazi leadership to undertake social policies that might lead to enhancing or increasing the genetic fitness of the German people (Kater, 1992). Eugenics consumed the German medical, biological and social scientific communities in the decade before World War II. Many physicians and scientists were frantic about threats they saw to the genetic health of the nation posed by the presence of inferior populations such as Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs, with a lesser extent a distant threat which was, African peoples (Adams, 1990). The steps they took to protect against the public health disaster of a ‘polluted’ racial stock were so awful, so immoral, and so heinous that they have rightly, shaped all subsequent discussion of the ethics of both human genetics and eugenics. Steps to eliminate unfit or undesirable genes by prohibitions on sexual relations, restrictions on marriage, sterilization or killing, are all forms of negative population eugenics (Kevles, 1995). Nazi judges and scientists ordered children killed or sterilized who had parents of different racial backgrounds or were thought to have genetic predispositions toward mental illness, alcoholism, retardation or other disabilities.

This was done to remove the threat such children posed to the genetic stock of the nation and to avoid having to pay the costs associated with institutionalization and hospitalization (Caplan, 1992). Laws were enacted prohibiting marriages between those whom Nazi race hygiene theory held were likely to produce degenerate offspring. Conversely, on a smaller scale, the Nazis tried to encourage those who satisfied Nazi racial ideals to have more children. The most extreme form of encouraging eugenic mating was the Lebensborn program which gave money, medals, housing and other rewards to persuade ideal mothers and fathers to have large numbers of children in order to create a super-race of Aryan children (Proctor, 1988). The provision of rewards, incentives and benefits to encourage the increased representation of certain genes in the gene pool of future generations constitutes positive population eugenics (Kevles, 1995).

Nazi race hygiene theories were false. There is no evidence to support the biological views of the inherent inferiority of races or the biological superiority of specific ethnic groups, which underlay the eugenics efforts of the Third Reich. There is not even any firm basis for differentiating groups into races on the basis of genetics (Harding, 1993). The negative eugenics programs race hygiene spawned were not only patently unethical, since they were completely involuntary and coercive they were also based upon assumptions about genes and race that are not true. The Nazi drive to design future generations based on what can now be understood as invalid science skewed by racism led to concentration camps, forced sterilization, infanticide and genocide. Ethical debates about eugenics must acknowledge the horrors perpetrated in the name of eugenics in this century.

But, despite the evil that has been done in the name of eugenics the debate cannot end there. The moral permissibility of eugenic goals must be addressed, in its own terms. For while arguments based upon history are instructive and important, those who see no analogies between our times and earlier times are unlikely to find warnings about the past sufficiently forceful to shape future behavior or public policy (Caplan, 1992; 1994). And while the fear of the imposition of eugenic programs by a totalitarian regime must be taken seriously it is not the only path eugenics might follow. Improvement of the genetic makeup of a population can be sought through negative or positive eugenics. What is less widely noted is that either strategy can be pursued at the level of individuals and their direct, lineal offspring or for large groups or populations.

Efforts aimed at improving or enhancing the properties of large-scale populations such as by providing incentives for large numbers of individuals with particular traits or abilities to marry and have many children or encouraging public health testing for neural tube defects constitute versions of population eugenics. The goals of such activities are to shift the makeup of the gene pool of future generations in particular directions. Positive and negative eugenics can also be carried out by individual couples who are not interested in nor motivated by the overall effect of their actions may have on the societal gene pool. Population eugenics need not be coercive but, historically, it almost always has been. A great deal of social pressure was applied in the German Lebensborn programs of the 1940s.

More recent efforts to shift the genetic norms of populations exemplified by the attempt to encourage those with the ‘right’ racial makeup to reproduce as is evident in the ethnically selective pronatalist policies espoused by governments in many parts of the world are less obviously coercive but still involve a great deal of cultural and societal pressure. The stated policies of some religious bodies such as certain Orthodox Jewish sects or some elements of the Greek Orthodox church that they will not bless marriages where no genetic testing for diseases has been done constitute examples of possible coercion for population eugenic goals by non-governmental powers. The day when we need to …