Unnatural Selection

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Review of 'Genetic Politics', Anne Kerr and Tom Shakespeare, New Clarion Press £12.95

Eugenics is the idea that it is possible, as well as desirable, to 'improve' the genetic make-up of the human race. Eugenics could mean encouraging people with 'good' genes to reproduce, or preventing those with 'undesirable' characteristics from doing so. Not that long ago it seemed such ideas had been discredited once and for all by the experience of Nazi Germany. But according to this stimulating and thought-provoking book, eugenics is being given a new lease of life by new scientific developments. This is far from being the first book about the politics of genetics, but I found it particularly interesting because of the way it approaches the subject from the perspective of those who have been most affected by eugenics - people with disabilities.

The Nazis killed 6 million Jews. But it was disabled people who were the first victims of Hitler's extermination policies. Prejudice and propaganda was soon followed by sterilisation. The 'law for the prevention of genetically impaired progeny' was implemented on 14 July 1933. The Nazi regime eventually sterilised a shocking 5 percent of the German population. But it didn't stop there. In what became known as the T-4 programme, the Nazis murdered disabled people. The programme was personally ordered by Hitler, who proposed that 'those suffering from illnesses deemed to be incurable may be granted a mercy death'.

Patients were selected because of conditions as varied as schizophrenia, depression, mental retardation, dwarfism, paralysis, epilepsy, sometimes even delinquency, perversion, alcoholism, and 'anti-social behaviour'. Ominous grey buses took patients to killing centres. The most disturbing part of this book is its description of how the Nazis murdered disabled children. A decree of 18 August 1939 instructed all newborns and children under the age of 3 with disabilities to be reported. Babies and toddlers were killed by lethal injection or just excessive doses of ordinary medication.

So who carried out the killing? A chilling fact is the central involvement of scientists and doctors. The T-4 programme was sponsored by the leading medical professors and psychiatrists of Germany - people of international reputation. It was doctors, not SS men, who killed in the euthanasia centres or children's wards. After the war, the German medical profession closed ranks and refused to acknowledge what had happened, or the culpability of many of its members. Most of those involved escaped justice.

What about the reaction outside of Germany? Obviously the full horror of what had been going on did not emerge until after the war, but it is somewhat shocking to hear that the American Journal of Psychiatry was expressing enthusiasm for Hitler's sterilisation act as late as July 1942. Shocking, but not perhaps surprising, when one learns that the US and some Scandinavian countries were carrying out their own forced sterilisation programmes in the 1930s. These continued in Scandinavia until the 1970s.

The second and most contentious part of this book looks at whether eugenics is making a comeback on the back of scientific developments such as the Human Genome Project. It points out that many of the flawed assumptions of eugenics are still present in claims being made about the extent to which human society and behaviour is determined by our genes. The authors also raise some important and difficult questions for socialists. For instance, does screening for inherited conditions like Down's Syndrome and dwarfism represent an attack on disabled people's rights, as some disability rights activists have argued?

I think there is a real danger in equating abortion of a foetus with the Nazis' murder of children and adults. Such a view can end up blurring the sheer horror of what the Nazis did to thinking, feeling human beings. It also runs the risks ending up as an attack on women's right to choose. I do not think the authors fall into this trap. But I do disagree with their view that screening and termination of foetuses with heritable conditions necessarily leads to discrimination against those with disabilities.

This book makes some excellent and sophisticated contributions to what is likely to be one of the major debates of the 21st century. It should be recommended reading for anyone concerned about the misuse of scientific knowledge and those looking for ammunition in the fight against prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities.