Recently the blogosphere has bee alight over the issue of eugenics, and whether liberals are bringing it back in. Various strands of evidence are offered, including the fact that historically it was "progressives" who previously supported eugenics when it was hot in the early twentieth century. Another strand is simply that "eugenics" and "pro-choice" are the same thing. Another strand follows the debate about stem cell research and equates those in favor of it with eugenics. (Summary article here.)
Then you have CNN host Glen Beck:
Beck added: "Then you get the scientists -- eugenics. You get the scientists -- global warming. Then you have to discredit the scientists who say, 'That's not right.' And you must silence all dissenting voices. That's what Hitler did."
Beck aside, let's take this concern seriously for a moment, especially the idea that genetic testing will lead to preferential births. Are liberals in favor of this and do they have a history of supporting such positions? The first thing to do would be to know something about the nature and origins of eugenics, and who supported it in the early twentieth century.
The idea that this was a progressive project isn't true. Eugenics is the practice of improving the breeding stock by eliminating the weak and increasing the strong. The term was invented by Francis Galton in 1883, and was pursued vigorously in the UK and America in the early twentieth century. It was not at all a disreputable idea at that time, and when applied to physical traits such as size or color (selective breeding) it does work. In fact eugenics was mainstream science in the USA at that time, with anthropologists, biologists and geographers all endorsing its claims. It is not unrelated to developments in public health either.
Where it differs sharply from natural processes of course is that people intervene to try and reduce traits that are only vaguely defined such as "feeblemindedness" which had no stable definition, and to make causal hereditary linkages for observed behaviors. In the early 20th century many proponents of eugenics, such as leading scientist and anthropologist Charles Davenport, who headed the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor, also pursued a racist agenda (as was common at the time) in the face of immigration fears (particularly immigrants from SE Europe). Davenport, his colleagues, and allies in Congress also passed forcible sterilization laws that targeted minorities, the poor and poorly educated.
Was Davenport a liberal? I don't know how he voted, but consider that he endorsed differences in racial intelligence and once received an admiring letter from Adolf Hitler (documented in Black's book). (He also imported and the ERO distributed many German propaganda films during the 1930s, and was given an award by the German government.) On the eve of WW2 his office was disbanded after receiving years of criticism for being unscientific (and his pro-German views increasingly an embarrassment). He did not endorse human equality (that all humans display the same potential) but the exact opposite: that being related to a drunkard uncle made you less viable. As one commentator to this discussion already pointed out, Hitler and the Germans got many of their ideas from the Americans, not the other way round.
All this has reached a head recently, with developmental geneticists such as Armand Leroi arguing that there is a neo-eugenics on the horizon due to the increased possibility of genetic screening of the fetus. Leroi may be familiar to you as the scientist who had argued in an op-ed in the NYT that race is genetically and biologically identifiable (in direct opposition to the prevailing scientific view of the post-war era. In fact, the SSRC set up a website to discuss this idea and why it is mistaken.) Geneticists are not scholars of race, but Leroi's latest discussion piece seems more viable. As Troy Duster has long argued, there is a real possibility of a rebiologization of life (including race, but also pre-natal screening, race-based medicines such as BiDil) in ways which echo some of the later work of Michel Foucault on biopolitics.
Neo-eugenics, liberal eugenics, race and biopolitics. Obviously this is going to be one of the key issues of our time.
PS: Salon recently reviewed a new history of eugenics, which I have not read, but there are already several great histories available (see below).
Black, E. (2003) War against the Weak. Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York and London, Four Walls Eight Windows.
Kevles, D.J. (1985) In the Name of Eugenics. Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press.
I wrote about some of this elsewhere:
Crampton, J.W. (2007). Maps, Race and Foucault: Eugenics and Territorialization Following World War One. In Crampton, J.W. & Elden, S. (Eds.) Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography. Aldershot, Hants, Ashgate. 223-44.