StMU Research Scholars

Eugenics and Its Effects on Modern Society

Figure 1: Modification of DNA 1
Eugenics has been present in human society for more than 2000 years. Eugenics is a principle that is supposed to build humans as a better species genetically. However it instead “discriminates against those with intellectual and other deformities present” 2 The principle is aimed at bettering humans to allow for better individuals. Romans as well as ancient Greeks would practice the killing of babies that had deformities or had mental problems that inhibited the thought process. The principle has been advocated by several well-known people such as Plato as well as Darwin and Galton. Eugenics has also come up in recent times as well with the advancement of medical engineering that may help developing children be rid of certain genetic ailments.

Eugenics has been used extensively by ancient populations, such as the Greeks, Romans and the Spartans. In ancient Greece, depending on the “tribe or the ancient city state” children would often be examined fully for any sort of birth defects that hindered their ability “to fight or contribute to the society” 3 This demonstrates how ancient cities wanted to have better member to help fight or hunt. It also shows how children were expected to fight from a young age in order to better contribute to the society. In the middle of the eighteenth century, many British citizens, after reading the teachings of Darwin, started to “endorse the idea of eugenics and the idea of creating individuals that would better society” 4 The concept of Eugenics started to take off as more British people showed their support. Many people around the world including those in America started to learn more about this concept and what it might do for the bettering of humanity.

Within the twentieth century, eugenics started to take off with in America. The United States started to implement eugenic policies in laws and immigration policies. Many proponents of eugenics believe that immigrants were not of the same mental capacity as immigrants of other origins such as those of Northern Europe. The country tried to pass statutes which favored immigration towards Northern and Western Europe and lower immigration rates from southern Europe . Individuals who favored eugenics were attempting to make the country better genetically and it was assumed this could be accomplished by passing certain quotas to limit the amount of Southern and Eastern Europeans coming here. It shows how those from Northern Europe were assumed to be better intellectually based off their national origin and racial heritage. This started to brew a concept of “fit vs unfit individuals or those who were better to have a family and raise children” 5 As people were coming to America and attempting to find jobs and work society was changing thanks to the innovation of technology and the expansion of medicine. The idea of American society was evolving. While American society has always pioneered itself on individualism, thinking in the twentieth century started to focus on the American family, particularly, those who owned a car and owned a house. Proponents of eugenics started to come out against those who were not from Northern Europe as well as those who did not work good jobs. It was argued that people who worked these lower jobs and were not as educated tended to be lazier and unfaithful in marriages and were therefore not fit to raise children.

In the early twentieth century, legislatures of “Michigan and Indiana approved sterilization of men who had lived in indignant homes or had been mentally ill” 6 These were the first legislatures to enact bills of this nature. Indiana became the first place in the world that enacted forced sterilization for the mentally ill. This would go on to motivate others in the world to soon follow the process. In the 1930s, leaders in prewar Germany started to argue for the Aryan look and better racial features. They promoted various propaganda and movies that would be released to the public. There was also since 1918 a growing myth which was held true by many Germans that they had been betrayed by their politicians who were of Jewish ancestry. By the early nineteen thirties sterilizations were greatly increasing in Germany. This was based off American eugenic laws which gave top German officials the idea of putting down those deemed not only mentally unfit, but racially unfit as well. Many top German officials started to experiment on the racially inferior without their consent and see the effects of different weapons or poisons. During the war, the Japanese unit 731 engaged in many activities that involved “human test subjects that were dissected while awake as well as subjected to frostbite tests as well” 7 During this period eugenics emerged as a horrific principle that many started to take a stand against especially after World War Two with the Nuremberg Trials.

 

Figure 2: DNA can contain vast amounts of Genetic Information and Knowledge 8
Genetics is the teaching that traits and features can be inherited by offspring from their parents. This was proved by the scientist Gregor Mendel. His worked on different pea plants helped pioneer the field of genetics leading to new discoveries and laws of inheritance on how genetic information can be passed on. It was soon hypothesized that features such as eye color as well as hair color are passed on and may be inherited. Other features such as height was soon discovered to be passed on by genetics and inheritance. However, while inheritance can pass on genetic information to people there may be some disorders may also be passed on as well such as Tay Sachs and Huntington’s disease. Tay Sachs disease can be a deadly disease which can result in several problems. First, it can cause ultimate damage to the spinal cord and the brain leading to cognitive issues as well as paralysis and then death. Huntington’s disease is a disease that also affects the mental abilities of the brain and may cause other serious defects that could result in possible death. While eugenics is founded on the principle that individuals possessing better genes may continue to reproduce and pass on their genetic information to their offspring, aims to improve the overall genetic makeup of an individual. Depending on the time and the historical figures at the time, that may have depended on having excellent intelligence or having racial features that were deemed more “fit” such as blonde hair or colored eyes. In modern society, eugenics has reemerged as there are breakthroughs in technology where scientists may be able to remove certain disorders from developing children before they are born to help the children live a heathy lifestyle. In the later part of the twentieth century towards the year two thousand, the concept of gene therapy emerged. This is a therapy that aims to correct faulty genes in humans. It has been a breakthrough, in assisting people that have problems with genes. For example, gene therapy has been used to help with B- cell lymphoma as well as disorders such as melanoma. These diseases can be very deadly. For example, B-cell lymphoma can cause the production of faulty B cells and hinder the body’s ability to fight different diseases. This overtime can cause many problems with the body and lead “to the development of cancer” [ 1. Armitage, James O. “How I Treat Patients with Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma.” Blood, vol. 110, no. 1, 2007, pp. 29–36., https://doi.org/10.1182/blood-2007-01-041871.] Melanoma is another disease that can cause numerous problems within the body. This isa type of cancer which develops from the skin cells of the body and can eventually spread to other parts of the body. It is normally caused by various sun burns as well as exposure to UV light in general. Melanoma may also be caused by having a family history of it and being predisposed to it. It may also be due to a weakened immune system that can lower the body’s defenses. It is a very serious disease which may cause various issues with an individual’s skin and is a hard cancer to treat. With the breakthrough of gene therapy, it has now become possible to fight these cancers and can demonstrate how eugenics can be a great solution.

Other examples of eugenics include the concept of invitro fertilization. This is a common use of eugenics that is practiced daily. In vitro fertilization came out within the last forty years and has proved to be very successful to couples. Scientists began to experiment with different animal embryos and sperm and soon discovered that there could be fertilization that could have happened outside of the organism. This was a breakthrough and led to other studies in organisms to confirm this teaching. Many couples may have trouble conceiving children and may have to turn to other options in order to have a child. This process was able to provide a solution for many couples who were struggling with this issue. With the concept of in vitro fertilization, couples are now able to have children and grow their families. In vitro fertilization also has other applications, such as the” enhancing the food production of animals as well as promoting endangered animals” 9 This is how in vitro fertilization can be very beneficial. Endangered species are now able to reproduce with this procedure to ensure their survival. While there can be risks to this treatment, such as multiple births as well as the spread of infectious disease, in vitro fertilization is very beneficial.

The concept of designer babies has become more prevalent in recent years with the advancement of genetic technology. Individuals have argued that this concept may in

Figure 3: Image of a DNA chromosome 10
fluence parents to completely alter their children leading to “genetic determination” 11 This could change of course alter disease of children but could also change a child’s hair as well as well as eyes and other features. There have been proponents that come out against such as Michael Sandel who advocate for “to appreciate children for how they come rather than gifts of our own ambition” 11 There is an ethical debate on this issue as to whether people should design their own babies. Many have come out with religious stipulations on the subject and have been greatly conflicted over this issue. On the other hand, designing babies could help eliminate disease such as Tay Sachs disease and Huntington’s disease. This could be beneficial for children that might suffer from them and can help children live longer and healthy lives and may also extend the lives of people in general. This may also help to eliminate genetic disorders from the population and better society.

The topic of Eugenics is a great ethical concern in the topic of genetics and to this day continues to be one. As humanity moves past the horrors of the second world war new medical innovations continue to come out that bring eugenics to a head, there are several challenges moving forward. While in vitro fertilization and gene therapy has proven to be successful in combating different cancers and assisting in the birth of children. The concept of designer babies raises concerns in the field of genetics. While children will be able to be free of inherited diseases, ethical dilemmas for many individuals may come into play. People may feel conflicted about altering their child and not accepting them for the way that they were made. This also deals with a basic principle in genetics, genetic diversity. With the emergence of one specific phenotype, or how people look, diversity may soon decrease from the population. Genetic diversity drives evolution and assists in a species evolving over time in order to adapt to the changing world. This may lead to a cataclysmic event where a disease could eliminate most of the population due to the high similarity of people everywhere on the planet. The field of eugenics will continue to be discussed over the coming years as humanity advances more in medicine and in different gene therapies.

  1. “How Is Genetic Engineering Evolving through CRISPR Technology?” Online Biotechnology Course, BioScience, Internships & Projects, https://www.learntoupgrade.com/blog/how-is-genetic-engineering-evolving-through-crispr-technology.
  2. McConnell, David, and Shanon Phelan. “The Devolution of Eugenic Practices: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Oppression of People with Intellectual Disability.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 298, 2022, p. 114877., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.114877
  3. Gates R. R. (1932). Eugenics and education: The practices of ancient, primitive, and medieval societies. The Eugenics review, 23(4), 305–309.
  4. Gates R. R. (1932). Eugenics and education: The practices of ancient, primitive, and medieval societies. The Eugenics review, 23(4), 305–309
  5. Pernick, M S. “Eugenics and Public Health in American History.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 87, no. 11, 1997, pp. 1767–1772., https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.87.11.1767
  6. Reilly, Philip R. “Eugenics and Involuntary Sterilization: 1907–2015.” Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, vol. 16, no. 1, 2015, pp. 351–368., https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-genom-090314-024930.
  7. Hickey, D., Li, S. S., Morrison, C., Schulz, R., Thiry, M., & Sorensen, K. (2017). Unit 731 and moral repair. Journal of Medical Ethics, 43(4), 270. doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/medethics-2015-103177.
  8. The Fascinating History of Eugenics. (2014, February 13). Today I Found Out. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/02/fascinating-history-eugenics/
  9. Bavister, BD. “Early History of in Vitro Fertilization.” Reproduction, 2002, pp. 181–196., https://doi.org/10.1530/rep.0.1240181.
  10. Eugenics | Bioethics.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://bioethics.com/eugenics
  11. Steinbock, Bonnie. “Designer Babies: Choosing Our Children’s Genes.” The Lancet, vol. 372, no. 9646, 2008, pp. 1294–1295., https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(08)61538-x.
  12. Steinbock, Bonnie. “Designer Babies: Choosing Our Children’s Genes.” The Lancet, vol. 372, no. 9646, 2008, pp. 1294–1295., https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(08)61538-x.

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11 Responses

  1. Your essay is very informative and it does raise a question of Ethics it’s one of the most part questions that pop into mind when it comes to genetic modification. It does raise the question of discrimination against people with disabilities. On the contrary, also have this new way of solving issues such as cancer and disabilities. Congratulations on your nomination.

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