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What is eugenics?
From Michael Wunder

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Concept history

The word eugenics comes from eugenes, Greek, which means “of noble descent”, “nobly born”. It is made up of “eu” for good and “genesis” for becoming, arising. Eugenics is understood as the doctrine of improving the human biological genetic makeup. Measures that serve to reproduce people whose genetic makeup is desirable or are assessed as positive are referred to as "positive eugenics", measures to prevent the reproduction of people whose genetic makeup is undesirable or classified as negative are called "negative eugenics" designated. The adjective eugenically qualifies activities, thoughts, and concepts as those that aim to improve the biological genome. Sometimes the terms eugenetics and eugenetic are also used. As a counter-term to eugenics, the term dysgenics is sometimes discussed, with passive dysgenics then being understood to mean the omission of eugenic measures, and active dysgenics is the conscious increase in people with non-standard gene variants.

The term eugenics has as a defining characteristic the idea of ​​the genetic improvement worthiness and the ability to improve humans by humans, but leaves the question open whether this is enforced voluntarily, through individual choices of the individual, through state demand for voluntary submission or state enforcement becomes. Due to the use of the term for the measures of hereditary and racial hygiene of National Socialism and the associated state enforcement, the term has a largely negative connotation today, especially in Germany. Eugenic motives in political activities or eugenic goals of measures are rejected. The qualification of a measure as eugenic is seen as criticism. In other European countries, as well as in the USA, this understanding of the term is not so negative. However, the term is considered out of date and is increasingly being replaced by the technically clearer terms such as genetic enhancement engineering (genetic improvement strategy) and germline intervention (germline intervention).

Charles Darwin laid the foundations in his work "The Descent of Men" in 1871 for a distinction between positive selection by nature itself and the overriding of this positive selection and the spread of negative selection by culture and civilization. However, following Lamarck's theses, Charles Darwin is still of the opinion that acquired skills can also be inherited and thus the negative selection effects of culture and civilization can be compensated for.

His cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911) contradicts this and argues that the hereditary factor should definitely prevail. With his own family examinations and twin research, he comes to the conclusion that the so-called hereditary inferior ones multiply faster, whereas the hereditary superior ones multiply more slowly. He thus lays the foundation for eugenics and its early paradigm that society will degenerate through culture and civilization if countermeasures are not taken to improve the human genome.
The term eugenics was first introduced by Galton in 1883 with his book "Inquiries into human faculty and its development". He defines eugenics as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” This definition is still valid today. In 1995, the American historian of science Daniel Kevles defined eugenics as the "totality of ideas and activities that aim to improve the quality of the human race through the manipulation of the biological genome".

Galton's program remains vague, however, with proposals such as eugenic marriage counseling, marriage restrictions for people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness, and segregation from habitual criminals. At the same time, Alexander Graham Bell researched deaf people in 1892 on the island of Martha’s Vineyard near Boston and, in his book "Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race", called for a ban on marriage among people with deaf dumbness and eugenic controls on immigrants in the USA. On the other hand, the program of the German Alfred Plötz (1860-1940), one of the later leading figures of German racial hygiene, goes further. In 1895, in his “Basics of a Race Hygiene”, he designed a society in which the social structure, ethical standards and finally the individual's right to exist are subordinated to the standard of reason of science.

Hereditary quality is equated with certain racial affiliations. Only racially high-quality couples should receive a state license to reproduce. Pregnancies should be monitored by reproductive health professionals. Weak newborns should be "weeded out", although this is only necessary until genetics allow the selection to be shifted to the germ cells.

From the end of the 19th century one can speak of a eugenics movement. In the USA, the first eugenics law is passed in the state of Indiana in 1907. In 1904 the first research station for experimental evolution was founded in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island by Charles B. Davenport (1866-1944) and a little later the Eugenics Record Office was founded as an international eugenics association.

In 1907 the state of Indiana passed the first law that allowed forced sterilization for eugenic reasons. Another 32 states in the USA followed with similar laws until the 1930s.

In Great Britain, the Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907, which among other things also called for the statutory regulation of voluntary sterilization there. In 1911 Karl Pearson received the first chair for eugenics in London.

From the end of the 1920s, sterilization laws came into force in many northern European countries, mostly governed by social democrats: 1929 Denmark, 1934/35 Sweden, Norway and Finland, 1937/38 Iceland and Latvia.

What these laws have in common is that they are directed against genetically undesirable people, especially people with disabilities or mental illness, and that sterilization can be enforced by the state. In contrast to the development in the German Reich, these laws are not part of a larger state program, do not show any practice of permanent expansion and result in significantly lower numbers of victims. However, some of them lasted into the 1990s, only to be withdrawn after a wave of public outrage.1 In the 20s and 30s, the contributions of German population geneticists who argued in terms of race hygiene, such as those of Alfred Ploetz and Ernst Rüdin (1874 - 1952), but also those of the Soviet geneticists around A.S. Serebrovsky, who advocated eugenics under the control of the socialist state at the end of the 1920s,2 still an integral part of the international geneticist debate.

In Germany, positive eugenics measures are carried out by the Lebensborn association sponsored by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS. The birth rate of so-called purebred Aryan children is increased through special support for single mothers with so-called “Aryan proof” in the German Reich, but also in the occupied territories, through accommodation during pregnancy and childbirth in the so-called Lebensborn homes. The Lebensborn children of unmarried mothers are given up for adoption after the birth. Later studies have shown a high rate of mental illness in those affected.3

The world's leading geneticists only distanced themselves from German racial hygiene in August 1939, when they met in Edinburgh and presented a manifesto entitled “Social Biology and Population Improvement”. The manifesto strives for a future world society that has overcome war, hatred and the struggle for elementary means of subsistence and therefore submits to a biological program for genetic improvement without state coercion, but voluntarily through insight. But humanity is not that far yet. Today, the manifesto can be seen as the key to the answer to why the idea of ​​eugenics to optimize human genetics has survived so unchallenged.

The thought figure contained therein, to dismiss the eugenics of the Nazi era as a relapse into unscientificness without giving up the basic idea of ​​genetic improvement in humans, was tried again and again after 1945. With that of James D. Watson (born 1928) and Francis H.C. Crick (1916 - 2004) first described the molecular structure of DNA in 1953 and the phase of molecular genetics that was founded on it, the socially utopian visions of geneticists received a renewed impetus. In 1962, at the so-called CIBA symposium in London, the leading human geneticists discussed how the consequences of population explosion, famine and the "genetic load" exacerbated by atomic radiation could be averted by genetic interventions. “Human betterment” was the keyword.

The later Nobel Prize laureate Joshua Lederberg (born 1925) described the methods discussed up to then, such as controlled procreation using selected germ cells, as "pathetic clumsy methods of animal breeding" and called for direct, selective intervention in the gene sequences that was brought closer to realization with molecular genetics Germ cells. Lederberg initiated the replacement of the concept of human betterment with the concept of genetic enhancement engineering introduced today at an early stage.

Current relevance and theoretical approaches

James Watson posed the much-cited question at the 1998 “Engineering the Human Germline” symposium in Los Angeles. "If we could make better people by adding genes, why shouldn't we?"4 The question of breeding people to measure that has been touched on can be understood as the modern variant of “positive eugenics”. But “negative eugenics” also has its successors in the current discourse.

Under the heading “Why we can no longer leave the future of man to God”, James Watson asks in 2000: “Will it be immoral in the future to allow the birth of children with serious genetic defects? And can these children take legal action against their parents later, because they did not prevent their children from being born with only a small chance of a life without psychological and emotional suffering? ”Hereditary diseases would cause shocking tragedies in many people's lives, so his own answer. Therefore, "over the next few decades, there would be a growing consensus that humans have the right to put an end to the lives of genetically damaged fetuses."5 The American biophysicist Gregory Stock takes the view that the application of genetic knowledge to optimize humans is inevitable.6 Most people want children who are not only protected from disease and disability, but also live longer, look better and have higher skills. He opposes the classic eugenic paradigm, degeneration, which must be compensated by eugenic measures, with the modern paradigm of genetic improvement through individual and responsible use of modern reproductive genetic technologies.

In the trait-related intervention in the human genome and the creation of new genome variants, he sees the “final realization of our human existence”. Stock rejects the term “eugenics” for his vision of the future, but with the term “redesigning” he ties in with the old paradigm, since genetic manipulation is understood as an updating redesign of something that already exists and is considered to be in need of improvement. Stock's opponent, Francis Fukuyama, member of the bioethical advisory board of George W. Bush, shares the view that scientific development and thus the availability of genetic selection methods will be inevitable in the future, but fears that scientific progress will enslave people could. He therefore calls for state regulation of the new technologies.7He calls for a ban on reproductive cloning (generation of identical offspring), but differentiates in the area of ​​the IGM between permitted therapeutic germline interventions and prohibited, purely improving germline interventions. He gives some examples of this, like preventing Huntington's disease8as a therapeutic germline intervention to be allowed and the regulation of length growth as an improvement intervention to be prohibited. Fukuyama wants the exact demarcation to be determined in a democratic decision-making process on prohibition and mandatory regulations.

Like Stock, Fukuyama rejects the concept of eugenics for his program, but many critics in the USA describe the state regulations he has called for as neougenic. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas opposes this thinking with the category of the unavailability of the randomness of the meeting of an egg cell and a sperm cell. In his relevant work "The future of human nature - on the way to a liberal eugenics"9he explains that the modern understanding of freedom is based on a "previously unthematically accepted unavailability of a contingent fertilization process with the result of an unforeseen combination of two different sets of chromosomes". This realization has only become clear today in view of the possibilities of reproductive medicine and biomedicine as a whole. However, contingency is the necessary prerequisite for being able to be oneself and the egalitarian nature of our interpersonal relationship.

Jürgen Habermas speaks of the undivided authorship of our own life story as a basic requirement for equal participation in the discourse. The socialization fate is also strongly formative, but still amenable to correction by the person concerned, the genetic program is not. A liberal eugenics, which prevails through the decision of many individuals, must be opposed to this understanding of genetic chance as the basis of our human existence.

Problem and experience areas

Eugenic concepts or goals are largely rejected in the German public and in politics. In 1995 the so-called embryopathic indication, which is always referred to as the “eugenic indication” in the commentary, for termination of pregnancy was abolished with a large majority in the German Bundestag. At the same time, however, the medical indication was expanded to include a psychological indication in such a way that the previous embryopathic indication is incorporated into it.

If the birth of a presumably disabled child means a serious psychological and therefore health impairment for a pregnant woman, which cannot be averted otherwise, the termination is legitimate. The dilemma of public rejection of eugenic goals while at the same time enabling personal decisions that can be eugenically motivated or at least have eugenic results becomes clear. The main problem areas in practice are:

  • prenatal diagnosis (PND) with subsequent termination of pregnancy
  • the human genetic counseling
  • assisted reproduction (in vitro fertilization, IVF and pre-implantation diagnostics, PGD)10
  • reflecting on the debate in the disability movement and curative education

The development of invasive prenatal diagnostics (amniotic fluid reflection or tissue removal from the embryo shell) has expanded enormously over the past 30 years. While there were only just under 1,800 applications in 1976, the number was over 67,000 in 1999 and 64,000 in 2001. The reasons given for this expansion are:

  • the requirement of pregnant women themselves to receive PND even though they do not belong to a risk group,
  • the possibility of legal action for damages (“child as harm”), if PND was not advised, with the result that doctors tend to advise against recourse to liability
  • the spread of low-threshold routine diagnostics in normal prenatal care, which are carried out, for example, as part of general ultrasound and which, however, only make probable statements about whether a disability is present, so that follow-up examinations in the form of invasive PND are necessary.

The decline from 2001 is assessed as a consequence of the general decline in the birth rate, but also as a success of the early screening, which increases the reliability of the prognosis and thus makes fewer follow-up examinations necessary. Reasons for using PND *

  • 81.9% hard-to-bear idea of ​​having to care for an affected child for a lifetime
  • 77.1% unreasonable impairment of one's own life planning by a disabled child
  • 60.8% disadvantage of already existing children through a disabled child
  • 55.5% impairment of the partner relationship due to a disabled child
  • 41.6% fear of social isolation of the family
  • 34.5% fear of financial impairment11

* based on a survey of 1,200 affected women in the early 1990s

A high correlation is assumed between a positive prenatal finding and termination of pregnancy. In the literature, average values ​​of 92% are usually given (mostly related to the diagnosis of Down syndrome). However, the consequences of the increasing use of PND and the closely related termination decisions can be indirectly read from the number of children born with disabilities. The number of newborns with Down's syndrome in the Federal Republic of Germany fell from 13.6 per 100,000 live births in 1976 to 6.1 in 1994.12

While the individual decision is usually made beyond eugenic considerations, the result in the critical debate is referred to as “eugenics from below”. Human genetic counseling before and after the use of PND plays a central role. An international study of abortion after finding Klinefelter syndrome13 has shown that 64.5% of women continue the pregnancy with advice from a geneticist, but only 28.1% with advice from an unqualified counselor.14 Another study from Boston shows that 40% of women after a PND diagnosis of Down syndrome decided to continue the pregnancy if they received special, encouraging counseling and psychosocial support during pregnancy and after the birth.15

The development in the area of ​​assisted reproduction shows a similar quantitative development as that of PND. While only 742 IVF treatments were carried out in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1982, there were over 76,000 in 2002. The expansion is interpreted on the one hand, similar to other methods of high-tech medicine, as a result of the increasing spread of the offer and the providers who are looking for a market, on the other hand with the growing infertility and the increasing treatment of infertility using reproductive medicine techniques justified. The interface between IVF and eugenics lies in its connection with pre-implantation diagnosis PID. This is also being discussed to improve the success rate of IVF as an infertility treatment.

The application potential of PGD is to exclude genetically undesired embryos from reproduction or to select genetically desired embryos, e.g. because they have a certain gender or because they are suitable as potential bone marrow donors for siblings who have already been born and who suffer from leukemia. IVF thus opens a window to neougenic reproductive genetics, which could develop in three stages:

  • Choice of route: yes-no decisions about carrying a child to term, genetic selection of disabled people, gender decisions
  • Selection: qualitative decisions between a number of embryos based on desirability or suitability
  • Genetic engineering: Determining the genetic makeup of an embryo

The disability movement is critical of this development. People with disabilities understandably see their right to exist threatened and their tolerance towards them fragile if the birth of a child with a disability can be recognized as such a great psychological ailment that the termination of the pregnancy can be justified. This criticism with regard to the possible introduction of PGD is expressed even more clearly, since the genetic undesirability here leads directly to the destruction of the embryo. Curative education discusses the questions from the perspective of closeness and distance, among other things.

The findings of genetic counseling and counseling before and after PND point to the need to develop an integrated counseling concept in which people with disabilities should be directly included, as should curative education as a discipline. The focus is on overcoming strangeness and lack of information about a life with a disability. The basis is an understanding of the fears and grief that necessarily and inevitably arise in expectant parents with a positive PND finding.


In the interface area ethics and disability, the focus is on the uniqueness of every person and the inestimable value of their life. The right to genetic chance and the principle of equality in difference are to be integrated as effective counter-strategies against any eugenic way of thinking in curative education theories. They are a rejection of any genetic improvement idea and underline the positive statement that humans are neither in need of improvement nor in need of improvement. The term “biointegrity” could be introduced as a counter-term to eugenics. Since the inviolability of humans is no longer given today and humans are undoubtedly vulnerable and vulnerable, not only as a social being and as a bearer of rights, but also as a biological being and bearer of genes, inviolability a priori no longer exists today .

However, it is a strong social agreement and today it must also relate to the biological side of humans. The term biointegrity could make this clearer, although one can undoubtedly say that the core message that this term makes has long been contained in the concept of integrity. The term bio-integrity could, however, emphasize that inviolability is a conscious decision that has to be defended so hard because it is less and less a matter of course.

  1. ↑ Estimated number of victims of forced sterilization (total from 30s to 90s): Sweden 60,000, Norway 40,000, Finland 17,000, Denmark 11,000
  2. ↑ In 1929 A.S. Serebrovskij in his "Anthropogenetics and Eugenics in Socialist Society" for the creation of healthy, talented and active children "through a state program of procreation and rearing and founded the Soviet school of geneticists, which Stalin 1936, among other things, with reference to the ability to learn Peasants and workers brought a disastrous end.
  3. ↑ see Lilienthal, Georg, Der “Lebensborn e.V.”. An Instrument of National Socialist Racial Policy, Frankfurt / Main 2003
  4. ↑ Summary Report, Engineering the Human Germline Symposium, http://archive.li/lQy3a
  5. ↑ Watson, James D., Frankfurter Allgemeine, September 26, 2000
  6. ^ Stock, Gregory, Redesigning Humans - Our Inevitable Genetic Future of man, Boston 2002
  7. ^ Fukuyama, Francis, Our posthuman future - consequences of the biotechnology revolution, London 2002
  8. ↑ hereditary disease which leads to death between the ages of 35 and 55 after severe movement disorders and a deterioration in personality, so far not treatable
  9. ↑ Habermas, Jürgen; The future of human nature - on the way to liberal eugenics ”, Frankfurt 2001
  10. ↑ after IVF and before possible implantation in the uterus, targeted genetic diagnostics on individual embryonic cells
  11. ↑ Nippert, I., Horst, J., The application problems of prenatal diagnosis from the point of view of counselors - with special consideration of the current and future possible use of genome analysis. Expert opinion on behalf of the Office for Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag, TAB Background Paper No. 2, 1994
  12. ↑ Source: Federal Statistical Office, July 1996., quoted from BT-Drucksache 14/1045, supplemented by information from the Federal Statistical Office, population statistics 3.16 Live births with recognizable malformations; since these statistics were only kept up to 1994, the information ends with this year; From 1994 handicapped newborns are only recorded indirectly by the hospital diagnosis statistics, which record the live births according to whether they were hospitalized in the first month after birth. This means that infants who are treated more than once are counted multiple times, and infants who were not born in the hospital and were not treated afterwards are not counted at all
  13. ↑ Genetically determined disability (additional female chromosome in a man, XXY), mostly slight intellectual impairment, secondary sexual characteristics less pronounced, often female body structure characteristics or particularly tall stature.
  14. ↑ according to Nippert, I, What can be learned from the previous development of prenatal diagnostics for the development of quality standards for the introduction of new procedures such as pre-implantation diagnostics? In: Reproductive Medicine in Germany, Volume 132, Series of publications by the BMG, 2000, 293-321
  15. ↑ quoted from Baldus, M., From diagnosis to decision - decision-making processes of women in the context of prenatal diagnosis, BMFSFJ-Schriften

Born 1952, Dr. phil., graduate psychologist and psychological psychotherapist,
Head of the advice center of the Evangelical Foundation Alsterdorf in Hamburg, an institution for people with intellectual disabilities;
Head of a development aid project for disabled people and psychiatry in Romania;
Author of numerous articles on medicine under National Socialism, assistance for the disabled, biomedicine and bioethics,
Member of the study commission "Ethics and Law of Modern Medicine" in the 14th and 15th legislative periods in the German Bundestag, former member of the German Ethics Council

Correspondence address:
Evangelical Foundation Alsterdorf
Advice center Alsterdorf
Paul-Stritter-Weg 7, 22297 Hamburg

Tel: + 49 - 40 - 50773566
Fax: + 49 - 40 - 50773777,

Email: [email protected]

Ludger Weß
The dreams of genetics. Genetic Utopias of Social Progress
Mabuse-Verlag, Frankfurt / M, 1998.

A critical appraisal of the history of human genetics from its beginnings to our times, in which its always close connection with eugenic concepts and socio-political goals is described.

Margret Hamm (ed.)
Destroyed life unworthy of life - Forced sterilization and "euthanasia"
VAS - publishing house for academic writings, Frankfurt / M, 2005

This book is a publication of the “Association of 'Euthanasia' - Victims and Forced Sterilization”, the only victim organization of those eugenically persecuted by National Socialism. It contains a collection of impressive life stories of those who were forced to be sterilized and victims of euthanasia, which arose through conversations with the survivors. In the second part, the book contains scientific contributions to the historical processing of the topic.

German Bundestag, Public Relations Department
Study Commission Law and Ethics of Modern Medicine Final Report 2002
Series of publications "On the subject", Berlin, 2002 (ISBN 3-930341-57-3)

The chapter Preimplantation Diagnostics (pages 63-183) gives a good overview of the methods and the development of prenatal diagnostics and assisted reproduction, including the possibilities of preimplantation diagnostics, their possibilities and their risks.

Jürgen Habermas
The future of human nature - on the way to a liberal eugenics "
Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt, 2001

With this work, Habermas consciously abandons the abstinence of post-metaphysical ethics that he himself calls for and takes a clear position against eugenics that would lead to people whose genetic program was made by others. In this book, Habermas explains why, for him, freedom is based precisely on the non-application of eugenic principles.

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