The American Society of Human Genetics Struggles to Face Its Past

Robert Resta and Diane B. Paul

Robert Resta is a retired genetic counselor and a regular contributor to The DNA Exchange. Diane B. Paul is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Associate in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. She has published widely on historical and policy issues in genetics. Her books include Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (1995), The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate (1998), The PKU Paradox (with Jeffrey P. Brosco, MD, 2013), and an edited volume (with John Stenhouse and Hamish G. Spencer), Eugenics at the Edges of Empire: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa (2018).

The American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) recently released Facing Our History – Building An Equitable Future Initiative, a report on the role of the organization and geneticists more generally in past injustices, including eugenics, sickle cell screening, and perpetuating inaccurate information about XYY syndrome and racial stereotypes about intelligence. About 3 years ago one of us (RR) authored a three-part series in this space that explored the role of eugenics in shaping the ASHG and the views of its leadership (Part 1Part 2Part 3). Some of that content was cited in the ASHG report.

There is much to be admired in ASHG’s willingness to acknowledge the roles the organization and its leadership played in respect both to eugenics and social injustice generally. However, the report also has several flaws. Here we focus our critique on our areas of interest and expertise – its account of the history of eugenics, which includes assertions that have been widely challenged by historians (without any acknowledgment of their contested status) as well as factual errors and omissions that skew interpretations. Here we discuss a few examples.

The Claim that Revelations of Nazi Atrocities Ended Support for Eugenics

In the summary of report themes (p. 4), the authors write that “after World War II and the realization of how American eugenic policies inspired the atrocities of Nazi Germany, public popularity of eugenics collapsed.” This claim is repeated in the section on “Origins of the American Eugenics Movement,” where readers are told that: “As the public learned how scientists and politicians in Nazi Germany used eugenic ideals to justify the atrocities and genocide they committed during the Holocaust, the public and scientific community became increasingly critical of and horrified by eugenics” (p. 10). But scholars have become increasingly skeptical of the view that World War II (WWII) represents such a turning-point. One source of skepticism is the fact that the trajectory of eugenic sterilization (which continued both in law and practice after WWII) does not even begin to square with this periodization. Another is the fact that many prominent scientists, such as Francis Crick, Linus Pauling, H.J. Muller, Julian Huxley, N.W. Pirie, and Peter Medawar (among others), and such influential theologians as Joseph Fletcher and Paul Ramsay, continued to argue for the need to control human reproduction – often explicitly under the rubric of eugenics — through at least the 1970s. Indeed, at conferences and in scientific and popular books and articles it was commonly argued that the need to control reproduction was now more urgent than in the past given expanded military and medical uses of radiation, resulting in an increasing “mutational load,” and advances in medicine that allowed individuals who would once have died before their childbearing years to survive and reproduce. The vocabulary of eugenics may have changed after WWII, but eugenics continued to play a key role in the writings and beliefs of many leading geneticists and other scholars.

Moreover, whether one thinks that eugenics (eventually) died or has continued in other guises depends crucially on how the term is understood. And understandings of what counts as eugenics have both shifted over time and remain contested. Thus, individuals who would have been considered – and considered themselves – to be critics of eugenics in the pre-WWII period, such as Lancelot Hogben and H.J. Muller, (because they criticized some of the scientific assumptions and/or racial and class biases that characterized establishment eugenics), would, by most current understandings of the term, count as eugenicists (because, among other things, they endorsed the sterilization of those with serious hereditary defects, a position that was then widely taken for granted, even by most self-defined critics). 

Moreover, there is no consensus today as to what policies, practices, and beliefs should be considered “eugenic.” In one perspective, eugenics implies state control of reproduction, whereas in another, eugenics can be voluntary and even actively chosen by individuals influenced by social norms of health, intelligence, and physical attractiveness. From the latter standpoint, far from withering and dying, eugenics continued to flourish in other forms such as marriage counseling, population control, and the once common cost-savings rationale for prenatal testing (preventing the birth of individuals with disabilities), in the 1960s and ‘70s. (Until the 1980s, most studies of the effectiveness of genetic counseling measured its impact on the incidence of disability and/or the reproductive decisions of counselees). Moreover, in the perspective of those who believe that eugenics can be private, voluntary, non-racist, and scientifically up to date, it may also inform such current reproductive genetics practices as prenatal and preimplantation genetic testing. 

That is not to assert that  a broad definition of eugenics that encompasses these policies and practices is correct, only that to claim that eugenics was killed by revelations of Nazi atrocities is to implicitly take sides in what is in fact an intense and ongoing debate.

Claims about Eugenicists’ Beliefs

The report’s authors define eugenics as a belief that undesirable traits “could be eliminated from the population” through selective breeding. Such a definition puzzlingly excludes all “positive” policies and practices, which ranged from free love to the Nazi “Lebensborn” program. Moreover, few if any eugenicists after about 1920 thought that traits could be eliminated from populations. Edward M. East was the first to realize that most deleterious genes would be hidden in apparently normal carriers, who would not be touched by programs of segregation and sterilization. That insight was made much more precise after acceptance of the Hardy-Weinberg theorem, which allowed geneticists to calculate the effects of selection against those affected. Thus, eugenicists understood that traits like “feeblemindedness” could never be eliminated from the population, and that even reducing their incidence would be a slower process than they had once hoped (though they considered that project worthwhile).

Particularly puzzling is the inclusion of abortion in a list of policies meant to restrict breeding by the unfit (p.6). The claim that American eugenicists promoted abortion in the service of ridding the world of undesirables is now commonplace on right-wing antiabortion websites, blogs, and magazines and was central to Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion in the 2019 case of Kristina Box, Indiana v Planned Parenthood. Thomas’s claim that eugenics and abortion were linked from the start was denounced by a raft of historians, who know that, for multiple reasons, prominent American eugenicists had almost nothing to say about abortion and that what they did say was generally highly critical. Thus, according to the Eugenics Catechism issued by the American Eugenics Society in 1926: “Abortion is murder and no eugenist advocates it except to save the life of the mother.” Interviewed by the Washington Post, historian and lawyer Paul Lombardo said: “I’ve been studying this stuff for 40 years, and I’ve never been able to find a leader of the eugenics movement that came out and said they supported abortion.” Why the ASHG would want to give credence to this influential but discredited claim is a mystery.

The Characterization of H.J. Muller

The most egregiously distorted commentary concerns H.J. Muller, who is presented simply as a critic of eugenics. According to the authors of the report: “While some ASHG presidents embraced eugenic ideals and practices, others were critical of eugenics based on its reliance on racism and coercive practices. In 1932, H.J. Muller (ASHG President, 1948), criticized the eugenics movement during the Third International Eugenics Congress, stating that it was ‘the naïve doctrine that the economically dominant classes, races, and individuals are genetically superior.’ In the preface to the first issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, Muller continued to criticize eugenics for its purpose of ‘translating biological prejudice into action,’ by promoting classist and racist ideals that have no basis in genetics.” This is true as far as it goes but is also markedly one-sided and misleading. 

Throughout his life, Muller was a passionate advocate of the need to control human evolution. His sympathetic biographer, Elof Carlson, notes that eugenics was “the leitmotif of Muller’s life.” Muller was also, especially in the 1920s and ‘30s, a critic of some aspects of eugenics under capitalism. But it is worth noting that even in his famous 1932 critique, The Dominance of Economics over Eugenics, from which the report quotes, Muller wrote: “That imbeciles should be sterilized is of course unquestionable.” And indeed, as noted earlier, at that time few if any scientists would have dissented from that comment. 

Perhaps the best-known American proponent of “Bolshevik” eugenics, Muller held that only in a society not stratified into classes – as he believed was true of the Soviet Union and hoped would eventually be true of the United States – could the effects of nature and nurture be separated, and a truly efficacious eugenics program implemented. In 1925, he authored a eugenic manifesto, Out of the Night (finally published in 1935), in which he proposed a program for the mass insemination of women with sperm of men superior in intellect and character, a program that he argued would rapidly raise the level of the whole population. Emigrating to the Soviet Union in 1934, he tried and failed spectacularly to interest Josef Stalin in his proposal and ended up fleeing the country. But in the 1960s, he resurrected a version of that proposal — now called “germinal choice” — to emphasize its voluntary character. His 1949 presidential address to the newly-founded ASHG, titled Our Load of Mutations, argued that an ever-increasing load of deleterious mutations would ultimately destroy the human race as we know it. To counter this degeneration, Muller outlined a scheme where the most burdened 3% of population would voluntarily refrain from reproducing. Thus, Muller’s views illustrate the difficulty of dividing individuals into two mutually-exclusive groups, eugenicists and their critics. Muller was both, as were many of his scientific colleagues.

Why Did It Take So Long?

The report itself makes no new significant contributions to the history of eugenics. The role of ASHG and its leadership in eugenics has been well documented for over 30 years. Why has it taken so long for ASHG to acknowledge this history? One could argue that the time was now ripe for such a reckoning – after all, social justice occupies a large space in the current public dialogue. But that does not explain why the ASHG’s involvement in eugenics has largely been ignored until now. It’s not like the published history was obscure or written in abstruse scholarly lingo. Much of the work in the field is highly readable and readily available through search engines and on library’s shelves. It’s a pity that the ASHG report does not address the question of why it took the organization so long to officially acknowledge this history.

Our critique of the ASHG report is not simply a matter of correcting minor historical details. Although the society is to be commended for making an effort to come to grips with its past, much of its eugenics narrative is dated and simplistic. Without a more complete and nuanced understanding of this history, ASHG cannot truly face its past.

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