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Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921. Public Domain

On July 14, 1933, the German parliament passed a legislation that allowed persons with hereditary diseases to be sterilised without their consent and against their wishes. From 1934 to 1939, an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 people with schizophrenia, manic-depressive syndrome, hereditary epilepsy and other conditions were sterilized.

In 1934, Adolf Hitler issued a secret order that initiated a national euthanasia programme to end the lives of the institutionalised, which he disparagingly described as ‘useless eaters’. This programme was introduced with the explicit aim of freeing up as many as 800,000 beds for expected war casualties. At around the same period, Hitler launched an anti-Semitic programme that sanctioned the state-sponsored mass murder or genocide of six million European Jews throughout German-occupied territory.

These horrific events have led the West, especially Europe and America, not only to reject eugenic ideas, but also to regard them as taboo. But in what is known as the Biotech Age (which began in the latter half of the 20th century), when the human imagination is bedazzled by the potentials of genetic research, eugenics has again begun to raise its ugly head, albeit in a different guise.

In the wake of the brave new world of bio- technology and medicine, the profound injunctions that were issued in the form of the Nuremberg Code in response to the atrocities of the recent past have become especially relevant and pressing, sixty years after they were originally formulated.

It was Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, who first coined the term ‘eugenics’ in the 1880. The modern eugenics movement received its inspiration from the social implications of Darwinism. For almost a century (1880 to 1945), eugenics sought to improve the human race through selective breeding based on the evolutionary theory broadly gleaned from Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Eugenicists in Europe and America have accordingly proposed to direct human evolution by increasing the frequency of ‘socially good genes’ in the population (‘positive eugenics’) and decreasing the proliferation of ‘bad genes’ (‘negative eugenics’). Some believe that utopia can be achieved if more biologically and intellectually superior people are produced and inferior ones are slowly eliminated from the population.

From its inception, the eugenics movement has wedded its vision of the future with the remarkable advances in the natural sciences. According to them, science (by which is meant the pseudo-science of ‘hereditarian biology’) has allegedly enlightened society on the genetic basis for social ills like poverty and criminality. And science has provided a method to rid society of the problem, in the form of eugenics sterilisation.

Christians, of course, should have no truck with eugenic ideas and programmes because the Bible provides us with a different vision of humanity. In the first chapter of Genesis, human beings are distinguished from the rest of God’s creatures because they alone are created in the ‘image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:27). This means that human life is a gift from God and the human being – regardless his age or health – must be valued and treated with respect.

As the gift of God, human life is sacred, and must be received with gratitude, cherished and protected. The individual is not only responsible for his own life, but also for the lives of others. That is why it is always wrong to take one’s own life or the life of another human being (Exodus 20:13).

It is in respecting one another in this way, and learning what it means to live in covenantal fellowship and solidarity with each other that we find meaning in our existence and flourish as a society. As the Roman Catholic moral theologian Bernard Häring has put it: ‘We find the truth of our life by respecting everyone’s life and caring for each other. In this we find the supreme meaning and value of bodily life’.

Unfortunately, Christians have not always understood this in relation to eugenics. In the heady decades following the genesis of the movement, a number of Christians embraced its philosophy and practice with enthusiasm for various reasons.

Some supported the movement because of its connection with Darwinism, which was seen as a scientific account of the development of living organisms. To reject Darwinism is to reject science, and to reject science is to be anti-progress – a charge which these Christians tried hard to avoid. Others were sincerely longing for a better society and believed that the eugenic method is the way in which this reality can be achieved.

That is why some churches even invited eugenics advocates to preach in their pulpits. For example, the Baptist Tabernacle in Raleigh, North Carolina, invited professor William Lovis Poteat to speak at their services. Poteat described evolution as the ‘divine method of creation’ and postulated that Paul may have been a theistic evolutionist. It was reported that his sermons were accepted with ‘enthusiasm equal to that which greeted his scientific ideas at college’.

In her study of the Christian reception of eugenics in the early years of the movement, Christian Rosen observes that ‘Protestants proved the most enthusiastic and numerically powerful group of religious participants’.

There were, however, distinct Christian voices that opposed the eugenics movement. One of the most eloquent was that of the Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton, who offered perhaps one of the most scathing assessments of the movement. Chesterton argued that contrary to the claims of its proponents, eugenics was not really supported by solid scientific evidence. He questioned the role that eugenicists gave to hereditary in shaping human societies and determining their future.

But the true evil of eugenics lies in its distorted understanding of what it means to be a human community. It fails to appreciate the value of human life and the responsibility that members of society have for each other. Eugenics signals the utter failure to see that the moral substance of any society can be acutely gauged by its attitude towards its members, especially the most vulnerable: the unborn, the very young, the aged, the disabled and the very sick. And this distortion has in turn led to the perversion of the very society that eugenics hopes to improve.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.