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Science in politics: Eugenics, sterilization, and genetic screening

Douglas Cushman Telling, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This work examined applications of genetic knowledge for political purposes. A debate exists over whether technology operates according to deterministic imperatives or is subject to human control. The central concern of this work, therefore, was the capability of the political system to ensure that technological applications served ends consonant with the democratic and moral values of the American political system. The first topic examined was the eugenic legacy. Beginning in the first third of this century as a nativistic enterprise, it was transformed after the 1930's into the application of genetic knowledge for the purposes of breeding a genetically perfected race. A review of contemporary sterilization practices followed. Despite the appearances of revived eugenics, the lure of the technical fix proved to be a better explanation for most sterilization uses studied. The final case study examined carrier, prenatal, and neonatal screening. Particular attention was paid to the legal status of the techniques, the politics of their establishment and accessibility, and their potential future applications. All of the techniques examined extended society's ability to address the issues motivating their introduction, but they also created new opportunities which extended their influence into new areas, challenging existing values (e.g., reproduction, marriage, individual autonomy, sanctity of life). The final discussion examined the political institutions' response to these techniques and their extended influence. Generally, the political system responded by addressing the techniques narrowly, paying minimal attention to the social values affected by the cumulative impact of the techniques. The courts reduced the techniques to individual rights and the legislatures narrowly defined the issues as technical or responded to interest group pressures. The result was technological incrementalism. For the political system to control democratically the ends to which technologies are applied, the legislative branches will have to act more systematically and substantively. Politics as usual--both institutionally and morally--is incapable of addressing the extended responsibility required by technological politics.

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Telling, Douglas Cushman, "Science in politics: Eugenics, sterilization, and genetic screening" (1988). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8906337.