Eugenics and Sterilization Programs

The historical practice of eugenics has indelibly scarred attempts at reproductive control that was based upon both reducing the number of people and also eliminating certain kinds. Thus, race/ethnicity, sex, mental status, physical ability, and income-level all have served to identify those who were involuntarily sterilized and, in more extreme cases, put to death. Technically, this is referred to as negative eugenics, since it prohibited the reproduction by those so identified. The converse practice, that of positive eugenics, was also applied, where once again selected groups were promoted for their reproductive contribution. Shapiro (1985) has provided an account, based on case studies as well as broader studies, of sterilization abuse among U.S. women, as does Hartmann (1995) with respect to Native women. As will be discussed below, procreative rights stand in most people's eyes as a foundation of humanity. Hence, forced sterilization is seen to violate reproductive freedom, irrespective of the good intention as defined by those who carry out the act.

A voiced concern in more recent times is whether certain biomedical developments might constitute a new form of eugenics. This issue centers on the growing capability of identifying genes that are in part responsible for determining such behavorial traits as intelligence and personality, or desired physical attributes such as stature. When this capability is realized there will be the potential for abuse in either selecting prenatally for these traits, or postnatally under the guise of gene therapy. Nonmedical (in certain instances this could be termed "cosmetic") applications of the new genetics obviously fall within the purview of quality control of humans, and they raise the spector of earlier eugenics movements. Certainly the stakes have been raised now that human cloning may be added to the controversial mix. However, in spite of the danger of potential abuse, it does seem that there is a place for legitimate medical uses of gene therapy.

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