Sunday, January 11, 2009

The weakness of eugenics

With Gov. Sarah Palin’s entry on the national scene came increased national attention those with Down syndrome. Her infant son Trig, a human interest story in his own right, prompted several columnists to use his fame as an opportunity to reflect upon the place of the disabled in U.S. society.

Michael Gerson, for instance, produced Trig’s Breakthrough, a sympathetic piece lamenting the “eugenic abortion” of those sharing the child's genetic disorder. He argued our private decisions end “imperfect” lives in order to “remove the social, economic and emotional costs of their existence.”

“And this practice cannot be separated from the broader social treatment of people who have disabilities,” he continued.

“By eliminating less perfect humans, deformity and disability become more pronounced and less acceptable. Those who escape the net of screening are often viewed as mistakes or burdens. A tragic choice becomes a presumption – ‘Didn't you get an amnio?’ -- and then a prejudice. And this feeds a social Darwinism in which the stronger are regarded as better, the dependent are viewed as less valuable, and the weak must occasionally be culled.

Gerson praised Sen. Ted Kennedy’s co-sponsorship of a bill that would have required medical professionals to provide more information on the lives of those with Down syndrome.

But he then turned critical:

Yet the pro-choice radicalism held by Kennedy and many others -- the absolute elevation of individual autonomy over the rights of the weak -- has enabled the new eugenics. It has also created a moral conflict at the heart of the Democratic Party. If traditional Democratic ideology means anything, it is the assertion that America is a single moral community that includes everyone. How can this vision possibly be reconciled with the elimination of children with Down syndrome from American society? Are pro-choice Democrats really comfortable with this choice?

These are strong words that no self-described liberal can honestly avoid.

A similarly polemical 2007 Gerson column notes that James Watson was also happy to claim the Down’s syndrome child “has no future.”

Gerson rebukes this sentiment driving eugenic selection: “This kind of ‘choice’ is actually a form of absolute power of one generation over the next -- the power to forever define what is ‘normal,’ ‘straight’ and ‘beautiful’.”

His concern for the disabled and the otherwise abnormal is noble, but his analysis exaggerates the power of a single generation of mortals.

We find no exaggeration in Gerson’s belief that the advancement of eugenics “creates an inevitable tension within liberalism” because “the left in America positions itself as both the defender of egalitarianism and of unrestricted science.”

Gerson exhorts the left to “choose human equality over the pursuit of human perfection” and reject the Eugenics temptation.

But here his use of the language of liberalism misleads. Clearly perfection or its approximation should be preferred to equality much of the time. Accomplished performers in art, athletics, or science are to be applauded. Eugenicists exploit with ease this egalitarian unwillingness to make distinctions.

Gerson’s case would be complemented by the argument that spiritual perfection is preferable to so-called biological perfection. Better souls and better societies are formed through accommodating, and not eradicating, the weakest among us. The shunning of the disabled not only violates another person’s integrity; it mistakes physical flaws for moral flaws.

Such moral flaws were displayed in the writings of another Trig Palin commentator, Robert Tracinski, who profiled Gov. Palin at

“The one clear indication we have as to the degree of [Palin’s] religious commitment is the fact that she is opposed to abortion in all cases,” he wrote. “…we know she means it because she chose to give birth to her youngest child even though she knew from genetic testing that it would have Down Syndrome, a severe form of mental retardation.”

From there Tracinski quickly descended into monstrosity. He added:

“This fact does reveal a profoundly faith-driven outlook, because it illuminates Palin's implicit attitude toward reason and the intellect. The joy of having a child is watching it grow and develop on its way to becoming an independent adult capable of enjoying a full human life. This is why parents rejoice in every new discovery the child makes along the way--his first steps, his first words, the first time he figures out how to open up and rifle through your filing cabinets while you're trying to work (but I digress). The tragedy of giving birth to a mentally disabled child is that he will never complete this journey. He will never become an independent adult or develop a full use of the faculty that is man's essential characteristic: his reasoning mind. To knowingly choose to bring such a child into the world is evidence that the precepts of her faith take precedence over the value of the mind in Palin's view of the world.”

Intelligent children often go through a phase in which they rage against the stupidity of humanity. Barring some mutation in conscience, they abandon this pose by late adolescence. By adulthood, they should realize it is not the innately dull-witted who deserve criticism and even contempt; rather, those most dangerous to the world are they who pride themselves on their own overestimated intelligence.

In other words, those like Tracinski.

In this case, Tracinski does not represent some declension of Democratic liberalism. He is the editor of the “Objectivist” Intellectual Activist.

His September 22 column on Sarah and Trig Palin marks his last appearance on We may hope this is not a coincidence.

How will such a man react when he is robbed of clear thought by some disease or when he recognizes in himself the first signs of senility? With enraged mock-stoic suicide, perhaps, thus taking his distortion of man’s “essential characteristic” to one of its many fatal conclusions.

Let this be a memento mori: disdain for the weak ultimately results in self-hatred.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

disdain for the weak ultimately results in self-hatred.

That is a really, really great one-liner. I plan to use it myself when the opportunity arises; hopefully I'll remember where I heard it and make an appropriate attribution.