Euphemisms Have Consequences

E. Christian Brugger
© Culture of Life Foundation 2009
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

"It is better to be fit than unfit." Who could disagree? Health is good and desirable, sickness is bad and repugnant. Pursuing the former and avoiding the latter are eminently worthwhile goals. But merely stating them in the form of goals leaves us in an overly abstract position. Some goals are so basic and common-sensical that they literally cannot be criticized. Concreteness and hence criticizability enters in when we begin considering practical means to achieving our goals: "the devil's in the details." This is why so many things said in a State of the Union Address are unobjectionable: "Everyone deserves access to healthcare!" "We're after an economy where all who want a good job can find one!" "I'm committed to lowering the out of wedlock birthrate!" "Nothing will stand between my administration and equality for all!" The devil indeed is in the details. Constructing a euphemism therefore involves among other things placing rhetorical emphasis for controversial ideas on readily acceptable values: pro-choice, planned parenthood, therapeutic medicine, hereditary improvement techniques. Eugenics is a fertile ground for the use of euphemisms.

The term eugenics (in Greek, literally "good birth") was coined by Francis Galton, the 19th century British scientist and cousin to Charles Darwin. Galton used the term to describe his ambitious project of exploring means of improving the hereditary qualities of future generations. He believed evolution was like Russian roulette, a wily jungle of dangers waiting to materialize. As Christine Rosen describes in her fine book Preaching Eugenics1, Galton believed "eugenics promised to give human beings control over this heretofore untamable process by encouraging the reproduction of the fittest specimens of humanity (a process Galton called positive eugenics) and preventing the unfit (negative eugenics)" (p. 5). He professed that "what nature does blindly, slowly, ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly." To the progressive intellectuals of early 20th century Europe and America, this reasoning was almost irresistible.

The story of the social initiatives arising from this eugenic fervor is well known: the forced sterilization throughout the U.S. and Europe of social 'misfits' - the morally and mentally feeble, the ungovernable, 'idiots,' and 'morons'2; the Nuremberg Law of 1935 (the "law for the protection of German blood and German honor"3); in the U.S., the "purity marriage certificates" in the Episcopal Church4, the separationist condemnation of intermarriage at Reformed synagogues throughout the country, and the active participation of Catholic clerics in the American Eugenics Society.

It won't do to announce judgment on these former initiatives and their supporters as if today we're free from guilt. The goals of these initiatives (-the ends being sought-) were all noble, namely, the betterment of peoples, elimination of suffering, and eradication of disease and disability. The evil lay in the means, as it almost always does. And the human propensity we have today to euphemize our own perspectives - to see only what we want to see - is no different from then. Today progressive intellectuals across the world are back at their eugenic tricks under the pretense that what they're doing is above reproach.

Reproduction has always been the locus of eugenic interest. In the 19th and early 20th century, initiatives focused on reproductive behavior: encourage the fit to reproduce and discourage the misfit. Now that we've conquered reproductive embryology, biotech has become the new eugenicist refuge. The grossest example, but certainly not the only one, is the area of embryonic stem cell research. Some of our country's most prominent scientists and bioethicists, employing the euphemistic paradigm, point to a future made possible if embryos are destroyed (they usually don't call them embryos, but "blastocysts" and they don't say destroy or kill, but rather "disaggregate"5). For example, three prominent bioethicists, Ted Peters, Karen Leqacqz and Gaymon Bennet, all associated with the Geron Corporation's original Ethics Advisory Board (EAB) in 1998, and forceful defenders all of embryo destructive experimentation, recently described their framework for assessing the problem of embryo research. Calling it the "medical benefits framework" or "future wholeness framework," they say "the central commitment within this framework is to a vision of a future that will differ from the past. Scientific research can lead to relief of human suffering"6. This relief will be stanched, they fear, if "embryo protectionists," "fundamentalists," and "Vatican Catholics" get their way7.

Because of that irritating and self-reasserting problem of natural human equality, eugenicists always feel obliged to explain why the unlucky victims of their initiatives are unfit for the protections they themselves enjoy. Karen Lebacqz, for example, is happy to affirm the intrinsic value of the embryo, a value, she says, that is not dependent on utilitarian calculations: "respect sees a value in itself beyond usefulness." Nevertheless, because that value is inferior to fully human value, "such an entity can be used in research and can even be killed. To do so is not in itself disrespectful"8. Nor I presume is it disrespectful to screen out and discard feeble embryos during IVF pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), nor to abort babies because of their sex or because they are diagnosed in utero with trisomy 13, nor to export contraceptives to Third World countries to 'decrease the problem of population'. Under a sort of tortured reading, it may not be disrespectful. But it sure as hell is eugenic.


1 Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (Oxford University Press, 2004). [Back]

2 In a polemic in support of capital punishment, George Bernard Shaw said famously: "But the ungovernables, the ferocious, the conscienceless, the idiots, the self-centered myops and morons, what of them? Do not punish them. Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill them." "Capital Punishment," The Atlantic Monthly (June 1948); available at [Back]

3 European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), "In the Name of Science: The role of biologists in Nazi atrocities: lessons for today's scientists," EMBO Reports, vol. 2, no. 10 (2001), p. 872. [Back]

4 At Chicago's Episcopal Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, couples wishing to marry had to pass a physician's exam attesting that they were "normal physically and mentally, and have neither an incurable nor communicable disease." (See Rose, Preaching Eugenics, p. 53). [Back]

5 Ted Peters, Karen Lebacqz, Gaymon Bennet, Sacred Cells? Why Christians Should Support Stem Cell Research (New York, Rowman & littlefield, 2008). Peters and Lebacqz were involved in ground floor discussions in the mid 1990s among bioethics on the morality of killing embryos. They actually confess in their text that early on they carefully substituted the term "blastocyst" for embryo in an attempt to avoid the linking of the killing of embryos for scientific reasons with the killing of the unborn in abortion (see p. 23). [Back]

6 Ibid, p. 43. [Back]

7 Ibid., pp. 47, 50, 54. [Back]

8 Ibid., p. 52. [Back]