Eugenics, forced sterilization and mercy killings

Do I have your attention yet?

Improving the human condition has been the goal of the medical, scientific, political and philosophical communities since the dawn of reason.

Unfortunately, when it comes to defining what better means there has never been a clear consensus. In fact, prejudice, misinformation and hatred have often been motivators to events and methods for bettering humanity. The Nazi eugenics movement conjures nightmares of mass genocide with its racism-clouded approach to altering the human genome. However, Nazi eugenics didn’t just take aim at the jewish population. Indeed, any persons classified of being inferior were a target of Nazi “applied racial science.” The Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring was a government policy of forced sterilization designed to weed out everything from mental disability and mental illness to hereditary illnesses – such as epilepsy – to alcoholism.

But the Nazis weren’t the only group guilty of forced sterilization programs. Various European and Asian countries, even Canada and the United States at one point, had forced or coerced sterilization programs. In 2009, the Czech government apologized to the Roma population for its policy of forced and coerced sterilization. More frightening was the suggestion, at the time, the practice might still be taking place.

Closer to home, the Alberta government apologized in 1999 for its policies of forced sterilization. The most notorious cases came out of the Alberta Training School, a place once considered the premiere facility for the treatment of mental illness. But Alberta wasn’t the only province to enshrine forced sterilization into law. The Sexual Sterilization Act was also adopted in British Columbia.

Eugenics has been on my mind all week, triggered by an article I read about Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer who was granted parole after serving 20 years in prison for the murder of his daughter. For those who don’t know, Latimer killed his 12-year-old daughter; she had severe cerebral policy. He believes what he did was right and after 20 years still defends his actions and is calling on the Canadian government to legalize what he calls “mercy killings.”

Very quickly. My take on the issue is Latimer was not justified in the premeditated murder of his child. I agree with many comments I have read that suggest Latimer’s actions were not designed to alleviate his daughter’s pain, but his own.

Although I don’t support what Latimer did, what if we had the power to prevent mental and physical disabilities out right? I am not talking about forced sterilization or abortion. What I am suggesting is: what if we had the technology to manipulate DNA, or predict what combinations of DNA would yield disabilities? Should we act to prevent those defects?

Here is a scenario: In the future, parents go for a pre-natal exam and learn their child has the genetic markings for a serious physical or mental illness. What do they do? Well, in this future world of medical marvels a simple surgery on the fetus to repair its genes fixes the problem and voila a perfectly healthy child is born. Would you accept such a procedure? To me it’s a no brainer.

Ok, what if the world wasn’t so neat and tidy, as it often is isn’t. What if instead it was more like Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca? I happen to love this movie and it does present some thoughtful moral dilemmas. But for the sake of this column, I am going to focus on the notion that a couple can test their genetic makeup prior to conceiving. That test will then generate a report predicting their future child’s odds for certain illnesses and disabilities. The report will even outline the offspring’s potential aptitudes. Would you allow a report of statistics and odds to influence if you would have a child, or with whom you would have that child? It’s definitely a slippery slope.

When you consider this keep in mind there are many examples of people who have overcome serious illness and serious disabilities to become major contributors to society.

I am still undecided. But I am leaning towards it be favourable to give my child every possible opportunity. Would those not be optimized if he or she had a healthy start?

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