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Skip to 0 minutes and 2 secondsMAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Eugenics today.

Skip to 0 minutes and 11 secondsROSEMARIE GARLAND-THOMSON: Most of us think of eugenics as a kind of unfortunate chapter in the first part of the 20th century that goes like this-- eugenics was a pseudoscience that was developed that made all sorts of policies and unfortunate practices such as compulsory sterilization, eugenic extermination-- the kind that we saw in the holocaust-- but that eugenics actually ended at the end of World War II when the Nazis were defeated, and that we don't practice eugenics anymore.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 secondsWhat I came to understand, however, is that there is a kind of new eugenics that has emerged that has continued in different forms, and that is eugenics that wants to sculpt and to shape communities and populations according to standards of what kinds of people are understood as valued, and what kinds of people are understood as devalued.

Skip to 1 minute and 18 secondsNow, eugenics isn't practiced anymore by states, certainly in the Western world, but it's practiced through medical technologies and through other forms that we think of as enhancement, and various forms of commerce, actually, that shape the way we are and the way we look in certain ways so that we have a standard kind of person that emerges as the valued person-- as the person that we all aspire to be. This is, in some sense, a eugenic undertaking. We don't recognize it as such, but we carry it out every single day.

Skip to 2 minutes and 0 secondsThis is what, to a certain degree, disability rights and other forms of inclusive politics have tried to work against, and that is the eugenic shaping of populations and the eugenic valuing of certain kinds of people at the expense of other kinds of people.

Are eugenics still having an impact today?

In the video above, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson explains her view that eugenics is still alive today in various forms. She focuses largely on the idea that commerce is a driving force in shaping our contemporary ideas around which types of bodies are valued.

Eugenics is focused on ideas of “improving” the human population. One contemporary area of debate is around the ethics of abortion of seriously disabled fetuses. Some argue that it is better to prevent the birth of babies with very severe disabilities, because they cannot possibly live a good life.

Others say that using disability as a reason for abortion implies that disabled people, or the lives of disabled people, are less worthwhile than the lives of “normal” people. They assert that this simply isn’t true — that it is offensive to people with disabilities, that it undervalues the contributions that people with disability can make to society, and that it takes focus away from society’s disabling effects.

Talking points

  • What do you think? Is it useful to think of the uniform shaping of societal values by commercial forces as a eugenic undertaking?

  • To what extent are recent medical technologies — genetic screening, cosmetic improvements, bodily enhancements, etc. — perpetuating particular ideas of “normal” or even “perfectible” bodies?

  • Share your opinions with others, trying to be careful about what argument you are making and the evidence that supports it.

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This video is from the free online course:

Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

UNSW Sydney

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: