Hitler's spectre haunts science

March 6, 1998

Justine Burley discusses one philosopher's attempt to rid modern cloning and genetics of the undeserved taint of Nazi eugenics

Hitler once said: "The discovery of the Jewish virus is one of the greatest revolutions that has taken place in the world. The battle in which we are engaged today is the same sort as the battle waged during the last century by Pasteur and Koch. How many diseases have their origins in the Jewish virus! We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jew."

The Nazi eugenics programme resulted in the murder of millions of men, women and children. Its shadow still looms over the late 20th century, glimpsed most obviously in the terror many people express when faced with the possibility that, in the near future, we shall be able to clone or genetically engineer humans. Human cloning and somatic and germ-line gene therapies are disturbing because they share with Nazi ideology the idea that it is desirable for some kinds of people to be born - but not others.

This is a fear and an analogy that crops up time and again in discussions of how to legislate to control scientific progress and it is one tackled head on by philosopher Jonathan Glover, who argues that applications of advances in biomedicine are not modern instances of Nazi eugenics.

In a lecture at Oxford last week, Glover, director of the centre for medical ethics at King's College, London, argued that when all the values behind Nazi eugenics are examined we can see that there is no helpful analogy to be drawn with the medical advances now being debated by politicians and scientists. Indeed, such analogies may impede scientific progress.

The Nazis' Lebensborn programme had two aims. The first was to identify the distinct characteristics of the best sort of people - Aryans. According to Glover, "the best types had not to look like Hitler at all". The second part of the programme was to encourage these "best" people to breed and to prevent the unfit from doing so. In the words of Fritz Lenz, one of the fathers of Nazi eugenics: "As things are now it is only a minority of our fellow citizens who are so endowed that their unrestricted procreation is good for the race." Glover points out that the blueprint held by the Nazis for the best sort of person, even on Nazi assumptions, had an insecure basis in science. Moreover, the methods employed to choose distinct Aryan types were crude, concentrating largely on physical appearance. For instance, Polish children were included as long as they had the requisite blond hair and blue eyes.

Nazi eugenics grew out of social Darwinism, the view that evolution was not only the process of competition between individuals but also of the struggle between groups. Nazi physician Arthur Guett put it thus: "The ill-conceived love of thy neighbour has to disappear. It is the supreme duty of the state to grant life and livelihood only to the healthy and hereditarily sound portion of the population in order to secure a hereditarily sound and racially pure people for all eternity." The Nazi ideology was one of racial purity and the Nazis used appalling imagery to give racism a biological justification, comparing Jews to vermin or to dirt and disease.

By contrast, says Glover, those who advocate the use of new biotechnologies in contemporary society focus their discussion on the relief of suffering or on the right of, for instance, the infertile to have children. This is a far cry from the ideology underpinning the Nazi eugenic policy - one that denied, almost wholly, the importance of the individual and sacrificed millions of lives in the name of racial purity.

Moreover, Nazi eugenics was promoted and enforced at the level of state policy. For Glover, decisions taken by the state about the types of people who may be born are utterly repugnant. And while it is true that there is scope to abuse some of the scientific techniques becoming available, this does not mean that all decisions parents may take about who will be born are akin to the ideology that underpinned the Nazi eugenics programme. Some decisions will be wholly morally justifiable - such as those taken by parents who are genetically screened to ensure that they do not bring a child into the world who will die young and suffer great pain. Glover believes that it is unfair and untrue to accuse parents who carry defective genes, and prefer to abort a foetus than pass those genes on, of practising eugenics. The definition of the term should be narrowed to exclude such cases. But, he adds, screening programmes should be accompanied by the promotion of equality of respect for disabled people. It cannot do much for a handicapped person's self-esteem to know that parents are choosing abortion rather than have a disabled child.

The issues are less clear-cut when discussing the possibility of genetic engineering to treat genetic disorders. Some argue that gene therapy technically avoids eugenics because interventions to correct defective genes are made in the womb or even earlier. But, while this strikes Glover as persuasive, he also suggests that some interventions might be so great that the foetus would develop into a wholly different person. Moreover, germ-line genetic engineering produces changes which are carried on through successive generations.

Despite these complications, which Glover thinks are real ones, meriting serious consideration, he still believes that much good could come of many of the new scientific technologies. Proper debate about how they should be used should not be muddied by false comparisons with Nazi eugenics.

Justine Burley is lecturer in politics, Exeter College, Oxford. Jonathan Glover's Amnesty lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford was entitled "Eugenics and Human Rights".

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.