Stranger than Fiction

October 31, 2014 • Posted in Blog

D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson had been on my shelf for some time before I summoned the courage to begin reading it. It is about William E. Dodd, a history professor from Chicago, who was appointed by President Roosevelt in 1933 to be America’s ambassador to Germany. The personalities and politics of many in the Third Reich as well as those in the diplomatic corps, and the Dodd family in particular, are paraded before the reader. Occasionally dropped into the narrative are laws that appear incidental to the story, but in truth provide a startling and disturbing backdrop:

. . . On [Dodd’s] first full day in Berlin, Hitler’s cabinet enacted a new law, to take effect January 1, 1934, called the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, which authorized the sterilization of individuals suffering various physical and mental handicaps.

This section leapt off the page to me, probably in part because I had just finished Calum MacKellar and Christopher Bechtel’s The Ethics of the New Eugenics (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2014).

Both MacKellar and Bechtel are associated with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, and bring their scientific and philosophic backgrounds, respectively, to the subject. They do not gloss over the origins of eugenics, giving a thumbnail sketch of historic eugenic practices in various European states, the United States, and the Soviet Union. MacKellar and Bechtel take the reader through the “new eugenic” procedures, as well as arguments supporting and opposing them. Along the way, various laws and international agreements are explored. MacKellar and Bechtel present a cogent dichotomy to the reader: “Either persons are valued for their inherent worth or they are valued for their quality of life” (p. 191).

MacKellar and Bechtel hope to accomplish two tasks with their book: “provide an introduction on the selection procedures that constitute the new eugenics,” and “to stimulate and galvanize discussion in the public square” (pp. 10-11). The book does a good job of reviewing the procedures available for egg, sperm, and embryo selection, as well as other ways in which members of society try to influence the genetic make-up of succeeding generations. The book adroitly raises questions begging answers in the reader’s mind. Therefore, it should indeed galvanize discussion of eugenics in our time.

Reading the two books together is a humbling — and rather scary — exercise. I can recommend it, though, because I think George Santayana was correct about our need to remember history: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason, 1905). A past of In the Garden of Beasts is one thing; it is an entirely different thing to choose a future there, however.