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Eugenics in America Today. Yes, Today. 

March 21, 2023

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Recent comments by Mr. Michael Hugo, who is now the former Democratic Committee chair of the Framingham, MA City Council, tore the scab off a festering wound of our country’s eugenic past. At a City Council meeting on February 7, he expressed his concern that somehow a baby with a disability might slip past a prenatal ultrasound technician and end up costing taxpayers too much in special education costs. It would be better, in his opinion, to just abort the child and be done with it. Phew . . . a few dollars saved, but at what cost? He doesn’t seem concerned about that. It is the cost of a precious human life.

On March 21, we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day—in the 3rd month of the year and on the 21st day, signifying the three copies of the 21st chromosome present in Down syndrome. It’s a day that challenges us to reflect on the status of people who live with Down syndrome, but it is important for us to remember, and to pray for, all whose lives are threatened by prenatal diagnosis and abortion. When prenatal diagnosis results in the abortion of an individual identified as having a disability, we have to call it what it is: Eugenics

Mr. Hugo is far from alone in his eugenic views. Reaching back a few years, in her 1990 testimony to the US Senate Labor and Human Relations Committee and prior to becoming Surgeon General in the Clinton administration, Jocelyn Elders made the following comment:

“Abortion has had a positive, public-health effect (because it has reduced) the number of children afflicted with severe defects. . . . The number of Down syndrome infants in Washington state in 1976 was 64% lower than it would have been without legal abortion.”

So, ending the lives of babies with Down syndrome provides a positive public-health benefit, does it? A horrifying, but common, view coming from a public official!

The cultural forces that favor abortion and elimination of genetic differences are strong.

As much as we would like to think the mentality behind these comments is rare, it is not. In a 2013 poll published in the Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, one in four women reported that following a positive prenatal diagnosis for Down syndrome, their physician was “insistent” that they abort their child. If I haven’t yet convinced you, in a 1995 poll, 63% of fellows of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) believed abortion was justified in cases of fetal anomalies compatible with life. Of course, the number was significantly higher if the child was not likely to survive to term or die shortly thereafter. By the way, ACOG seems to be even more entrenched now in their abortion advocacy. They recently refused to allow the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists (AAPLOG) to host a booth at their 2023 conference because of the pro-life doctors’ belief in the equal sanctity of all human life—yes, even babies prenatally diagnosed with a suspected disability. I say “suspected” because some of the newer non-invasive prenatal screening tests are far from accurate, yet they are being used for life-and-death decisions.

Eugenics has deep roots in American life. Some of America’s most revered names were among those who promoted eugenic sterilization to “improve” humankind. In 1911, as Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, promoted and signed into law a statute that was “an ACT to authorize and provide for the sterilization of feeble-minded (including idiots, imbeciles and morons), epileptics, rapists, certain criminals and other defectives.”

Other notable progressives and progressive institutions behind the American eugenics movement were Margaret Sanger, the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, J.H. Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, and even W.E.B. Du Bois, the black American sociologist and civil rights activist who (incredibly) believed that “only fit blacks should procreate to eradicate the race’s heritage of moral iniquity.” Wow!

Of course, the landmark US Supreme Court case in 1927, Buck v. Bell, consigned to history the stunning quote from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In his majority opinion, he wrote the memorable phrase: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The full quote from the opinion should not be forgotten. He wrote:

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from breeding their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting Fallopian tubes. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Chilling, isn’t it?

Buck v. Bell challenged a Virginia statute that authorized compulsory sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” The Court upheld the Virginia statute and agreed that Carrie and her mother were both “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous,” and therefore, for the common good, should be sterilized to prohibit them from any further procreation. (By the way, Carrie had become pregnant after being raped.) We can be proud that the only dissent in the case came from Justice Pierce Butler, a devout Catholic. Due to the Court’s decision, local laws would follow Virginia’s lead and some 60,000 “imbeciles” would end up being forcefully sterilized with the full consent of the highest court in the land.

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The architect of the Virginia statute, Harry H. Laughlin, was held in high regard by the Nazi party in Germany from whom he would receive an honorary doctorate in 1936. Buck v. Bell was even cited during the Nuremberg Trials by the defense for the SS functionary Otto Hoffman.

I wrote at the beginning of this article that our eugenic past is perpetuated in the present by people like Michael Hugo who still hold the opinion that society would be better served by the elimination of individuals with disabilities through prenatal screening and abortion. He justified his opinion on economic terms. He said the cost to taxpayers to care for these individuals once born through adaptive education programs and other social services would be too high.

Jerome Lejeune reflected on that cost calculation once and agreed that the cost to care for an infant born with a disability was indeed high. However, he assigned a very specific cost at the end of his calculation. He said that the cost is exactly the price of remaining human.

If we choose to eliminate individuals with disabilities from society, we are failing in our fundamental obligation to one another that came from Our Lord himself: to care for the least of our brothers and sisters (Matt. 25:40).

So, as we celebrate World Down Syndrome Day, please continue to pray for an end to abortion and, especially, please remember to pray for those who are killed in the womb because their parents are afraid of the diagnosis they have received, or who simply don’t want their child because of their disability. The cultural forces that favor abortion and elimination of genetic differences are strong. Families need our support as they discern the results of their diagnosis and the influence of the counseling they receive that may, or likely will not, be favorable to welcoming their child.

Venerable Jerome Lejeune, pray for us!

Beautiful girl with Down syndrome smiling