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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Autism, Eugenics, and Euthanasia

In The Politics of Autism, I write about the dangers of eugenic solutions.

At The Independent, Mathieu Vaillancourt writes of forbidding autistic people to donate to sperm banks.
The other problem is the whole concept of eugenics behind this. It's indeed true that autism is a complex and umbrella-like condition which may seems scary at first glance. Many with autism face massive challenges - but others who have dyslexia, autism (or any other neurological disorder) are able to have great, fulfilling lives and possess a sense of responsibility, loyalty and precision that lots of people would do anything to have. To label people with dyslexia or Asperger Syndrome as impure makes this look like a dodgy remake of an era not so long ago, when some governments wanted a ''purer'' race and sought to sterilize people against their will, or even ''euthanize'' them.
He is not exaggerating.  In Buck v. Bell (274 US 200), the US Supreme Court upheld involuntary sterilization. Writing for the majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared:
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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
And "respectable" thought leaders wanted to go even farther, to the killing of defectives.   A 1942 debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry focused on on whether the government should eliminate the  "feebleminded." Neurologist Foster Kennedy argued in the affirmative.Leo Kanner, who would soon publish the landmark article launching the study of aut ism, argued against killing.  An anonymous editorial sided with Kennedy’s position.

This debate was hardly a "one-off."

Consider William G. Lennox.  He was not some random nut, but a distinguished neurologist who did important work on epilepsy.  (To this day, the American Epilepsy Society bestows an annual William G. Lennox Award.)  In an article in autumn 1938 issue of The American Scholar, the official publication of Phi Beta Kappa, Dr. Lennox wrote of people "confined in institutions where they are never seen by the public."
They are the congenital idiots or monsters, the result of some slip of the hand of Him who made them; lumps of matter in human form but without human mind. What should be done with these? Of many defectives it can be said that human judgment is subject to error and that cures sometimes occur when least expected, but for this lowest group there can be no such plea. A clockcase without works can never tell time. Physicians are bound by inherited ethical standards and the motto "They shall not die." Raymond Pearl, the biologist, has this to say:
These unfit organisms are kept alive by the rest of society for no realistically demonstrable reason other than that they were once born, and by being born, somehow placed upon the rest of mankind what has gradually come to be regarded as a permanently binding obligation to see that they do not die. It is difficult to convince a biologist that a social philosophy will endure for any great length of time that deliberately and complacently loads upon the already weary backs of the able and fit an evergrowing burden. . . . No species or variety of plant or animal has long survived that was intrinsically incapable of making its own living. There is somewhere a biological limit to altruism, even for man.3
"Very well for another person's child," says the objector, "but what if it's your own? " Memory flicks past rows of writhing, incontinent, vacant-eyed, speechless bodies, distressing to the point of nausea, and I answer "I should rather see a child of mine in its coffin."
Dr. Lennox proposed actual death panels:
Decisions involving life and death are, however, reached daily by legal processes. The selection of the congenitally and hopelessly mindless for elimination would offer no more difficulties than their selection for lifelong incarceration. A court-appointed medical committee would be sufficient. Laws would of course need to be revised, and prior to this public opinion would need to be awakened. The essential prerequisite to human progress in any field is willingness to face realities and to work out fundamental rather than temporary solutions of problems.