A call for a new definition of eugenics

- Yanguang Wang, Ph.D.
The Center for Applied Ethics,
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Email: Ameliaw@ihw.com.cn
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 73-74.

As we will see, eugenics has always been a protean concept. Almost from the start of debate, eugenics has meant different things to different people.

Eugenics comes from the Greek word eugenes meaning "good in birth". In 1883 Francis Galton started using the word" eugenics" defining it as the "science of improving stock-not only by judicious mating, but whatever tends to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had." Galton later experimented with a variety of different formulations such as "the study of agencies under social control which may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations", and "the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race: also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage" In all of these definitions, eugenics sounds rather innocuous. Most medical genetics would fall within its domain (1).

Nearly five decades ago, both the United States and Germany, a number of leading figures moved the right direction of the first eugenics definition. They combined eugenic interests with a focus on the "unfit". In the heyday of eugenics, sterilization, infanticide, murder, euthanasia, or a variety of "final solutions" were tools for the prevention or elimination of the "unfit". The eugenics is same as Nazism and a major weapon for discrimination against minorities. From those eugenic programs, eugenics is generally regarded as a pseudoscience in modern world. Also most contemporary definition of eugenics is labeled a country's policies that are coercive.

The contemporary geneticists warned the above eugenics movement's amount to cautions over the Nazism and racism, the untenable claims in behavioral genetics, in particular the heritability of personality traits, and both genetic essentialism and determinism. Some has warned of eugenics as the unintended result of individual choices (2).

However the social policy intervention, along with genetics measures exists in many countries. These policies do not aim to coerce or mandatory who will be conceived and born, they emphasise the elimination of hereditary disease and handicaps through the prevention of marriages or conception between persons likely to transmit to their progeny such diseases and handicaps. This eugenics thinking can be justified if it is not a science based on Nazism, racism, discrimination to minorities and genetic determinism, it is a science which inherent in the core eugenic doctrine of improving the stock of humankind by application of the science of human heredity. Such aa social policy intervention is based on the individual' informed consent. This science can be called "negative eugenics."

There are some eugenics practices that can be justified in the modern world. The Chinese Encyclopedia of Medicine defines eugenics as: "a science for the improvement of human heredity, prevention of birth defects and raising the quality of the population by research and applying genetics theories and approaches." In fact, most of such eugenic practices pay attention to the prevention the defect of the births (3).

The intention of the Chinese government in the "law of the people's Republic of China on maternal and infant health care" is merely that people in China should be warned of the risks of inheriting heritable genetic diseases, and helped to avoid them among their children. The Minister of Public Health, Chen Minzhang has said: "the cost of looking after those with hereditary handicaps was enormous, imposing a heavy burden both on the state and on millions of families. There was therefore wide popular support for the rapid enactment of a eugenics law containing effective measures to reduce inferior-quality births." The Chinese government is concerned with the avoidance of avoidable genetic handicap among future generations. They have no discrimination on the present handicap population (4).

The law is not be very different in its effect from the services provided elsewhere, where public health services offer genetic counseling, on occasion, abortion if there is proof that the outcome of a pregnancy will be a seriously handicapped child. The chief beneficiaries of the law, which is of necessity voluntary, are parents and their children. To the extent that seriously handicapped children may be an expense on public finances, there may also be some benefit to nation. The eugenics thinking in the law belongs to negative eugenics and may be justified ethically (5).

In this sense, the Chinese word "Yousheng" is same as the Greek word eugenics meaning "good in birth", also it is belong to the Galton's eugenics' core doctrine of improving the stock of humankind by application of the science of human heredity. In this sense, the Chinese word "Yousheng" can be translated as eugenic. But it is different from the US and the German "eugenics" in history.

Some (e.g. Bajema, 1976) have said a new eugenics consists of genetic counseling, the examination before the birth and the selective abortion (6).

There are the laws that prohibit the marriage between close relatives in many countries. This can also be called eugenics. Even though involuntary is included in such eugenics, almost no person objects to it, for the birth quality is quite low.

There are so many definitions of eugenics and relative practices. We can also find differences in the Encyclopedia of Bioethics. In the Encyclopedia of Bioethics, someone defined eugenics as a major scientific and pseudoscientific weapon for discrimination against minorities, a political, economic, and social policy that espouses the reproduction of the "fit" over the "unfit" and discourages the birth of the "unfit". But others defined eugenics differently following the history developing steps in the same important book (7).

All definitions show a close relationship between eugenics and medical genetics. Following the development of genetics and the growing amount of genetics technology applied in the genetics practice, we must justify how to use them, and what are the ethical reasons to use them. It is important to have a contemporary definition of eugenics for the genetics in debate. We need only one definition or a new one of it. It can make the concept of thinking clear and justify the practice involved in contemporary genetic medicine. What is right depends not just on the facts but on what is meant by eugenics.

In my opinion, we should recover the core doctrine of eugenics - good in birth and prevention the defect of the birth voluntarily. We can focus our attention on negative eugenics. Genetic medicine which has found some defective genes or some certain proof of what causes inherited diseases can make it possible. We can do something for positive eugenics, but the eugenics programs could limit its focus to those human characters on whose desirability there is universal or widespread agreement (8). Anyway, few of us are entirely free of the eugenic thinking" good in birth" in some aspect of our daily lives. A parent's decision to delay having a child until he or she was financially and emotionally ready to be a good provider and parent. Most modern governments hope that their people will be energetic, ingenious and enterprising. But the eugenic thinking and practice should balance the interest of all sides.

How to define eugenics remains to be seen. But it is true that the eugenics cannot and should not be understood without an analysis of the moral, political, and social implications of advances in science and technology at particular times and in particular places and for particular individuals or groups of individuals within a society.


1. Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity-1865 to Present, Humanities Press, 1995, pp.3-9.
2. Martin S. Pernick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp.25-29.
3. Encyclopedia of Chinese, v. Medicine, Press of Chinese Encyclopedia, 1994, pp.1727-1730.
4. Tim Beardsley, Scientific American: Analysis: China Syndrom: 03/97,p.3.
5. Opinion, China' misconception of eugenics, Nature, 367, 6 January 1994, p.1-3.
6. Renying Yen, Applied Eugenics, Ren Min Medicine Press, 1986, p.4.
7. Simon & Schuster Macmillan, Encyclopedia of Bioethics, Revised Edition, Volume 2, Macmillan Library Reference Press, 1995 p.978. Pp. 955-959. Pp.970-972.
8. Daniel Wikler, Eugenic Values, December 1997.

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