On the eve of the Paralympics, BBC Newsnight ran a segment called ‘Eugenics, Helping or Eradicating Disability?’ The show began with the question “is it a noble aim to rid the world of mental and physical disability”? As if for the sake of completeness, the piece then described how “the most heinous crimes of the 20th century, the holocaust, the mass murder of the disabled, the enforced sterilisation of anyone considered inferior, all took place in the name of eugenics”. It continued: “Many of the Paralympians we’ll be celebrating in London have the same disabilities as those whose rights have been violated. But does this mean we should write off eugenics in its totality?…Should the prospect of designer babies be ignored just because of its associations with Nazism?”
The insensitivity of this pitch is mind-boggling. But could such a question be asked here?
Of course it could. Implicitly it already has been. For many years pregnant mothers have been routinely offered tests to detect conditions such as Down syndrome and spina bifida with a view to abortion. Two years ago this screening programme was beefed up with the object of eliminating more disabled children. Saving Downs, an organised group of parents of children with Down’s Syndrome, has lodged a complaint with the International Criminal Court on the basis that such programs are eugenic and an affront to the Down’s Syndrome community. The fanatics are already suggesting that not only are there the means to do away with the disabled but a duty to do so – a duty to design.
Both here and in the UK this trend is being driven not by latter-day Hitlers but by sober professors. The BBC programme in question put bioethicist John Harris up against two non-academics who had personal interests in disability issues. As it happens, Harris’ case for eugenics was fatally undermined when one of his opponents, Ian Birrell (a columnist and foreign correspondent in the UK with a disabled daughter), pointed out that the professor also supports infanticide.
What was striking about the programme was the evident bias of the BBC. Music, images, rhetoric, the prior briefing of Dr Harris — all were designed to make the audience see “the promise of eugenics”. And this was not an isolated case: a few weeks earlier the BBC showed a short segment called “Nature vs. Nurture” which looked at the dominance of black athletes at the Olympics. The piece implied that genetic cleansing is positive and that the Nazis merely distorted it. When referring to the victims of the Nazis’ eugenics policies, the extermination of hundreds of thousands of disabled people was completely ignored.
What of the broadcaster’s ethical duties in this case? Surely it has a responsibility to engage in balanced reporting and not manipulate its audience to accept one view only. Impartiality is all the more important when the issue concerns such basic questions as the right to life and the equal dignity of all human beings.
To reflect on the horrors of Nazi eugenics policies and to then advocate, under the pretext of scientific reporting, “a new eugenics, enlightened by empathy, leavened by liberty” with an identical aim of ridding the world of disabled people, is not only highly offensive to disabled people everywhere but is frankly quite frightening. Has it been so long since the Holocaust that we have already forgotten its lessons?
Disabilities are obviously not something we hope for and it may well be a “noble aim” to eradicate disability. But there is nothing noble about trying to eradicate disabled people whether before birth, after birth or by sending them to the fringes of society by failing to afford them the same rights and dignity as those who are not disabled.
As Ian Birrell quite rightly pointed out, the presumption behind this “new eugenics” as with that propagated by the Nazis, is that disabled people are inferior and that we should do all we can to eliminate them. This is not only a grotesque view but it encourages negative attitudes towards disabled people in society.
The New Zealand media too should examine themselves on their attitude to disabled persons. If the lack of coverage of the Paralympics is disappointing, the lack of investigative and balanced reporting on practices such as prenatal screening, pre- implantation diagnosis and the moves towards designer babies in trendsetting countries is ominous. Are we going to blindly follow them back to the fascism of the 1930s? As the saying goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.