The creeping appeal of eugenics

July 27th, 2017

It’s possible that our general political and cultural situation has me a bit on-edge and hyper-sensitive, but there have been a few articles over the last month that raised my hackles. In a piece for The Guardian, the author suggests having fewer children as a way to fight climate change. There is no doubt that human beings are the most destructive species on earth, but headlines like these encourage judgment on developing areas of our globe where women are likely to have more children. Despite those in other parts of the world having more children, North Americans contribute to producing more emissions. As the article notes, an American is responsible for 40 times the emissions of a Bangladeshi.

While the article is careful to note that decisions about child-bearing are intensely personal and its effect on climate change is only one factor that couples might consider, this kind of rhetoric lends itself too easily to people making judgments between “good” and “bad” families and children. For countries like the United States with a history of racism and eugenics policies, being pro-life or pro-choice means affirming the rights of individuals to decide on the size and shape of their families.

The second news item was a little closer to home, in my own state of Tennessee, where a judge has promised reduced jail time if male inmates receive a vasectomy or female inmates opt for Nexplanon, a long-term contraceptive implant. On its face, the judge seems to be driven by concern, particularly with the explosion of the opioid epidemic. He wants these individuals to “take responsibility for their lives” and “not be burdened again with unwanted children.”

Apparently, Judge Sam Benningfield is unaware of the dark history of eugenics in the United States, particularly the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The compulsory sterilization of people in prison, the disabled, nonwhite, and others deemed “imbeciles” during this era was a blueprint for some of the policies in Nazi Germany. Again, contraceptive use and decisions about child-bearing should be left to the individual and not coerced by the government, on whose behalf Judge Benningfield is acting.

These articles seem to be a symptom of a larger spiritual and ethical disease, a scarcity mindset that tricks us into dividing other people into “us” and “them,” into “good” and “bad.” It tramples the God-given dignity of every human being. Where are those who call themselves “pro-life” or declare that “All Lives Matter” when a judge tells us that unplanned babies born to drug-addicted parents are a burden? Surely God does not see these beloved children as a burden.

In the eyes of God, our worth is not defined by our color, our ability, our health, or whether we are a “burden” in the eyes of the state. God’s love for all of us extends to the cross, where the blood of Christ reconciles us to God despite our sin. The world classifies those who are “desirable” and “undesirable,” but God desires us all.

This idea that we can somehow fix our problems by judging and controlling who should and should not bring new life into the world is worse than pessimistic; it is nihilistic. It is a fundamental denial of Christian hope in the resurrection, that hope will overcome fear and life will ultimately conquer death. As Christians, we must model and fight for a better way in the midst of a culture that thrives on fear and scarcity. We must boldly proclaim and live the generous, life-giving hope of God who cherishes every human being and who sees all of us as desirable.

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