By David South
Though many feel a golly-gee-whiz response when medical science leaps another hurdle towards genetic manipulation, research by two recent Royal Society Hannah Medal winners into the history of eugenics sends a chill up the spine.
Both University of Toronto’s professor Pauline Mazumdar, author of Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Sources and its Critics in Britain (Routledge, 1992), and Angus McLaren, University of Victoria professor of history and author of Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (McClelland and Stewart, 1990), disclose how mainstream genetic selection once was – and possibly still remains.
“Ever since the test tube baby breakthrough a decade ago, there’s been a new concern for the spin-offs of this research,” says McLaren. “In Canada there’s a woman who was sterilized in Alberta who is now suing the Alberta government, so that is bringing it back into the consciousness that these things actually did happen.”
“Many quite respectable individuals took it as given that there must be something in eugenics. That was the difficulty in writing the book, determining who was a eugenist and who wasn’t. It was so widely believed that it was very hard to make a serious demarcation.”
Professor McLaren found winning the medal helped raise his profile. And the resulting media interest allowed him to put the issue in historical perspective.
“The problem as ever is people looking for some sort of a quick fix to social problems – hoping that some sort of genetic tampering will allow very complex problems to be surgically dealt with.”
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