Friday, June 13, 2008

Unnatural Selection: Chapter 8

This chapter introduces us to Otmar von Verschuer, a participant in the Nazi eugenics/"racial hygiene" movement and provides a taste of the life of Josef Mengele, who will be discussed in the following chapter. After noting that, after the fall of Hitler, Verschuer had "come back west, prepared to begin again," Wingerson moves on to a detailed description of his work as the professor of a then-new Frankfurt Institute for Genetics and Racial Hygiene.

Central in the text is an analysis of Germany's 1934 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Ill Offspring. I noted four flaws of the law besides that of its gruesome purpose, sterilization:
  • The nine conditions requiring sterilization were "broadly defined." That widened the already-wide sluice gate of moral wrong.
  • These conditions "were thought to be hereditary" (emphasis mine). Bad science.
  • Similar to much of the preexisting "high-minded academic literature behind the eugenics program," the law "spoke as if these sterilizations would be voluntary" - this reeks of brainwashing, no?
  • Another assumption was that the general population understood thoroughly the concepts of "'heredity' and 'feeblemindedness'." When one doesn't define something, that something becomes open to wider and wider interpretation.
I also found it interesting that Frankfurt had, by 1935, the most comprehensive genetic registry in all Germany. The Midnight Sun has posted about Britain's attempts at beginning potentially such a registry.

Here is utilitarianism (the greatest good for the greatest number of people) at its worst: "People judged [via the registry] to be 'inferior' were thereafter excluded from public support and health care."

One of Verschuer's suggestions (which, thankfully, was never codified; emphasis mine):
...Verschuer had argued for a change in the sterilization laws. He had suggested that the conditions for sterilization be broadened to 'severe hereditary disturbances, severe hereditary illness, and severe hereditary physical abnormalities.' His main rationale was that his experience had shown him that 'the number of genetic illnesses is so huge and diverse that in the current diagnostic system everything cannot be ordered sensibly.' In other words, he wanted doctors to be free to order sterilizations ['abortions' may be easily substituted here, don't you think?] without being obliged to explain their decisions based on specific diagnoses.
To end on a lighter note before tomorrow, here is a tidbit, not morose but rather a ghastly pun: A man by the surname of Schade "wrote [Verschuer's] long and glowing eulogy." "Schade" means "damage" or "What a pity!"

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