WASHINGTON – Many people know that the Nazis invoked science to try to justify their quest for a "Master Race."
But it might surprise most people to learn their evil application of eugenics, a supposed attempt to improve the human race, was modeled after a program in California greatly admired by Adolf Hitler.
Advertisement - story continues below
That's according to Arina O. Grossu, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council. And it was one of the many fascinating, and chilling, examples of science gone wrong that she addressed in a presentation titled "Eugenics and Transhumanism in the Modern Age: The Pursuit of Biological 'Perfection' at What Cost?" delivered Wednesday in Washington.
The overarching theme was: Where does science and medicine end – and playing God begin? Grossu made clear that it's not just a philosophical or ethical question in this age of amazing technological advances; it's a practical matter as well, sometimes even one of life and death.
But she also warned that venturing into unethical and deadly scientific practices is a line that has been crossed many times before in American history, ostensibly in the quest of improving mankind.
Advertisement - story continues below
Grossu illustrated what she perceived to be the dangers in advancing further than ever into a brave new world of unethical attempts at human "improvement," by diving into history and tracing a line from Darwin to America's own eugenics programs, to Planned Parenthood, to the Nazis and to modern technology.
First, she described two types of eugenics, positive and negative. The former seeks to improve the human race by increasing the number of people with what are considered positive traits. The second seeks to eliminate people with what are considered undesirable traits.
Grossu then explained how the inception of eugenics was greatly influenced by Darwin's theory of natural selection – that the fittest will survive and the weakest will not.
At a eugenics conference in New York in 1921, Charles Darwin's son, Major, called eugenics the practical application of the principle of evolution.
Advocates of eugenics believed the human race would be improved by not letting the weak, those with undesirable traits, multiply. The first method employed was forced sterilization.
Advertisement - story continues below
Grossu related how Indiana became the first state to legalize coerced sterilization, in 1907. By 1912, a total of seven states had followed suit, including New York and California.
It was the Golden State that led the way. Of the 60,000 forced sterilizations in the United States, 20,000 were performed in California.
Those targeted were the "feeble minded," the insane, the handicapped and the diseased. The aim was to breed the strongest and most capable humans while discouraging the propagation of those deemed less fit, who were seen as a terrible burden on society and a drain on precious resources.
Grossu said those efforts were supported by such august institutions as the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, and the vast majority of Ivy League scientists.
Advertisement - story continues below
They used charts to determine who was "normal" and who was "degenerate."
In 1915, the New York Times reported an astounding 15 million schoolchildren had been declared defective.
And, she said, school textbooks taught that the defective were "true parasites on society."
"Fitter family" and "better baby" contests were held nationwide to promote the ideal specimens for propagation. Grossu said none of this history appears in modern textbooks.
A seminal event in the advance of eugenics was the founding of the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became Planned Parenthood in 1942.
Founder Margaret Sanger, a strong advocate of eugenics, said, "Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race." Grossu described how the Planned Parenthood matriarch saw birth control as a tool for the elimination of both unwanted and socially undesirable children, those with physical and mental defects: the feeble minded, diseased and handicapped.
Sanger saw a "racial responsibility" not to reproduce "unfit" children.
Virginia became the first state to legalize compulsory sterilization in 1924. The state's Sterilization Act was upheld in 1927 by the U.S. Supreme Court in an 8-to-1 decision in the Buck v. Bell landmark case 1927. In effect, it legalized compulsory sterilization across America.
Writing for the majority. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said society would be better off if Carrie Buck were sterilized, because such people were sapping the energy of the state.
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind," wrote Holmes, adding, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
However, Buck was not an imbecile. A rape victim, she kept her child, who ended up in the top of her class.
Grossu cited it as a prime example of an injustice carried out to impose an ideology.
In fact, it seems to be a textbook example of injustice and ineptitude in the name of science. According to University of Virginia archives:
"Current scholarship shows that Carrie Buck’s sterilization relied on a false diagnosis premised on the now discredited science of eugenics. It is likely that Carrie’s mother, Emma Buck, was committed to a state institution because she was considered sexually promiscuous, that the same diagnosis was made about Carrie when she became an unwed mother at the age of 17 due to being raped, and that her daughter Vivian was diagnosed as 'not quite normal' at the age of six months largely in support of the legal effort to sterilize Carrie."
The Supreme Court decision cleared the way for the sterilization of 60,000 Americans.
The "success" was noted overseas, where the Nazis were enthusiastically promoting eugenics in Germany. Grossu described how they used the U.S. legal model to institute their own sterilization program in 1933, in close collaboration with administrators in California.
Some eugenicists advocated euthanasia to decrease the undesirable population. It was one of the points suggested in a 1912 report presented at the First International Eugenics Congress. Grossu noted that the use of gas chambers was the most commonly suggested form of eugenicide in America.
Mass extermination proved to be too much for the American public's taste. But Grossu relayed how euthanasia of undesirables was practiced in America under the radar by introducing them to disease. She cited the practice of doctors at a mental institution in Illinois of giving patients milk laced with tuberculosis germs, killing 40 percent of them.
The Euthanasia Society of America was founded in 1938, and Grossu said it is still going strong in its advocacy of assisted suicide.
She then transitioned to the subject of transhumanism, sometimes called "newgenics," which has the ambition of creating better humans through science.
Modern technology is a boon to much of medicine, of course, Grossu began. But she said new capabilities raise new ethics questions as to whether scientists should do some things just because they can.
And she focused on the dubious ethics of some of the leading ethicists informing the scientists.
Most famous among them is Peter Singer, the professor of bioethics at Princeton, an atheist.
Grossu related how Singer has maintained the life of a newborn human is even less valuable than that of an animal because the child is not yet self aware. And how he believes deficient babies should be killed up to 30 days after birth. And how he advocates using people in a persistent vegetative state for science experiments instead of chimps.
Such disregard for life is also evident in the modern in vitro fertilization industry, where many more embryos deemed deficient are discarded than those actually used, she said.
For all parents, Grossu maintained, prenatal screening isn't necessarily bad, "But to what end? To heal or to kill and destroy?"
Prenatal and genetic screening of embryos can now test for 4,400 diseases. That's not just for the presence of a disease, but a predisposition to one.
"If this information is used not to help the child but to encourage an abortion, is this really ethical?" asked Grossu.
She maintained, ever since the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended in 2007 that all pregnant women should get screened, the trend has been for doctors to push for abortions of babies with any abnormalities, or even just the potential for such.
And with all that data collected on nearly all babies, Grossu wondered: How secure is that information? Who has control over all those records? Could someone's information be misused by insurance companies or employers?
She maintained "science is good except when hurts humans or compromises human dignity," and noted the first rule of a doctor's Hippocratic Oath is to "do no harm."
But technology has now given people the means to perform sex-selective abortions, which, Grossu said, "doesn't happen in just China or India." She said the numbers for such abortions in the United States were not available, but estimates are there 160 million such procedures performed yearly around the world.
She also noted there four times more black babies aborted than white babies in the United States.
And that, according to figures from the 2010 census, 79 percent of Planned Parenthood clinics are within walking distance of black or Hispanic neighborhoods.
Additionally, she said, one in four women reported being pressured to abort a fetus with Down syndrome.
And that one study found most doctors push for an abortion before parents bring it up if tests show any kind of risks of abnormalities.
So, she wondered, just "how is this different than the old forced sterilization?"
Grossu urged doctors not to push for prenatal screenings or testing unless the purpose is to prepare the patients for whatever may come. She also believes doctors should inform patients about the possible inaccuracies of such tests, and to tell parents about support groups for children born with abnormal conditions.
"If we are the pro-life generation, we should look into our heart to see if we can adopt or become a foster parent," she implored.
"There are no unwanted children," Grossu declared, noting that some will have the need for medical care and face some big challenges, but that there many organizations to help parents and many couples who want to adopt any child.
As for the rapid advance toward transhumanism, Grossu noted scientists have already created such oddities as genetically modified animals that can glow in the dark, including fish, cats and monkeys.
And now, the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, has proposed lifting a ban on research leading to the creation of part-animal, part-human embryos.
The deadline for public comment on the proposal is Sept. 6, but Grossu fully expects it to be approved, regardless of public sentiment.
It is a short step from there, she said, to the creation of part-animal, part-human beings, "opening a Pandora's Box without knowing the consequences."
"Why not focus on treating humans, rather than creating animal-human hybrids?" she asked rhetorically.
Grossu said the key issue had been framed by former Pope Benedict, who declared technological efforts to treat disease as good, but efforts to improve the human race as bad.
She noted that, while optimal health is preferred, happiness does not consist in it alone. For example one study showed that 99 percent of people with Down syndrome say they are happy with their lives. How many of us who are healthy can say the same?
Grossu concluded by calling for the passing of stricter laws to defend human life.