Eugenics and Euthanasia


Universe Column for December 3rd 2006

It was deeply disturbing to read that the Anglican Bishop of Southwark, Bishop Tom Butler, has joined the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology, in calling for legal euthanasia in the case of seriously disabled newborn babies.

Bishop Butler says “It may in some circumstances be right to choose to withhold or withdraw treatment, knowing it will possibly, probably, or even certainly result in death.”

In a chilling phrase the bishop talks about “the lethal act” only being “performed with manifest reluctance.”  To the tiny infant who is being given the lethal injection such “manifest reluctance” will count for very little. It won’t mean much to the child’s parents subjected to the officiousness of some “we know best” administrator or doctor. And it is deeply offensive to disabled people themselves.

Bishop Butler is careful not to say what disabilities will qualify for the lethal injection simply talking instead about “strong proportionate reasons”.

It was precisely that sort of vague language – open to all sorts of interpretation – which  has led to abortion up to birth on babies with disabilities, for reasons such as cleft palate. How ironic it is – Bishop please note – that it has taken a brave young Anglican curate, Joanna Jepson, to challenge and highlight the brutality of that 1990 law.

Bishop Butler used the old canard of “the right to choose” to justify infanticide of the newly born. That slogan has been responsible for 6 million abortions and destructive experiments on another million human embryos. The word choice comes from the same Greek root as heresy. Rights can never trump duties or responsibilities. Innocent life deserves infinite love and care not a violent end.

It was G.K. Chesterton who coined the phrase that “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose” – and we can take some comfort as we now challenge Bishop Butler and the RCOG that we have faced these lethal arguments before.

In Chesterton we have the twentieth century’s prophet of life and the most trenchant early opponent of eugenics. The century was at its dawn when he was identifying these falling shadows. With the century’s setting sun we can look back with certainty and see clearly  where the thinking led: to  the terrifying infamies and evils of the holocaust, fascist and socialist totalitarianism; the corrupting of medical ethics and the destruction of life on an unprecedented scale.

In 1912 the Liberal Government introduced the Mental Deficiency Bill, which advocated compulsory sterilisation of people who were mentally ill.  Chesterton and his great ally, the independent MP, Josiah Wedgwood, vowed to fight it.

The Committee to further the Mental Deficiency Bill was headed by the two Anglican primates, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Among the supporting cast was Chesterton’s bete noire, the Dean of St. Paul’s, Dr.William Inge. In an essay entitled Eugenics (1917) Inge contrasted the Eton and Oxbridge educated males of his family with the “birth-rate of the feeble minded which is quite 50% higher than that of normal persons.”

The view of many bishops was summed up in the Galton Lecture (named for Francis Galton, the apostle of eugenics, principal advocate of selective breeding and cousin of Darwin), by another of Chesterton’s adversaries, Bishop Barnes of Birmingham. Published in “The Eugenics Review” the idea that every individual was made in the image of God and of equal worth before their Creator was an anathema for Barnes, who believed that:

“Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society.” He added that by “preventing the survival of the socially unfit”Christians “are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road.” Chesterton saw where this would lead. Has Bishop Butler?

In “Eugenics and Other Evils” and in an essay, “The Fallacy of Eugenics” Chesterton said “we betray our own feeble-mindedness by calling them Unfit.. For the very word Unfit reveals the weakness of the whole of this pseudo-scientific position.”

Eugenics was never a science of great precision. Galton simply identified two main categories – “the feeble-minded” and “degenerates” who would be incarcerated in asylums for life or forcibly sterilised. Eugenics, said Galton “is the science of improving stock…to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”

So why not simply go one further and kill them at birth? Among Galton’s supporters, H.G. Wells argued that “If we could prevent or discourage the inferior sort of people from having children, and encourage the superior sorts to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race.”

The Webbs published a Fabian Tract warning that “children are being born freely to Irish Roman Catholics and the Polish, Russian and German Jews, the thriftless and irresponsible…This can hardly result in anything but national deterioration…or this country falling to the Irish and the Jews.”

Churchill told Asquith that “the multiplication of the feeble-minded” could not go on unchecked and he argued for compulsory sterilisation rather than the more expensive option of incarceration.

After a nationwide campaign in 1913 Parliament abandoned the Bill. Chesterton rejoiced in his triumph but warned that, despite “the stench” of the defeated Bill,  men’s memories were short: “these dazed dupes will gather again.”

These calls to kill disabled babies prove the accuracy of Chesterton’s prophecy.