There Ain’t No Good Eugenics

Adam Cohen is the author of Imbeciles, an recent, widely read, book on the history of eugenics in early 20th century America. It’s a solid book that about a history that isn’t well known, and I’m glad he wrote it (though I am not sanguine about the movie deal based on it, but that’s not his fault and is a separate story). 

What I’m not glad about is his recent op-ed in the L.A. Times on “good eugenics,” which seems to miss the lessons of the history he synthesizes in his book. His thesis in the op-ed seems to  be: Due to cheap gene editing, eugenics is coming, but that might not be bad? He writes:

As a practical matter, though, the genie is already out of the bottle, and it is unlikely we could stop embryo editing if we wanted to. New advances are coming rapidly, and gene editing is only becoming easier, faster and cheaper.

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.

The whole thing reads to me like a pitch to sell more copies of his book, now out in paperback. I get it. I, too, am finishing a book and hope to sell many copies. But I think he’s taken precisely the wrong lesson from the history – an ableist regime, whether based on forced sterilization or gene editing, will always reflect the oppressive biases of the society that constructs it.

America – like most of the world – kills, incarcerates, and abuses its disabled citizens, especially those who are multiply marginalized by race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, or other categories of difference.

Any eugenic gene editing process that is constructed in our culture will reflect the ableist reality in which they are created.

In the future, disability will code for poverty, for non-white, for non-Western, and the oppressions will intensify.

I am not an optimist, even as I rally to fight against this future.

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