In the heyday of eugenics in the 1920s and 30s, you could not avoid a figure of speech that I will call the “litany of defectives.” You would find it in college biology texts and popular magazine stories about having healthy babies. It was considered by some to be cutting edge science, and you could run smack into it at the State Fair, where stuffed guinea pigs, white ones and black ones, would be arranged on a board to illustrate Mendel’s laws of inheritance. You can imagine which colors represented “pure” and “abnormal” parents and offspring. The display would be accompanied by a version of the litany that went something like this: idiocy, feeble-mindedness, insanity, blindness, deafness, epilepsy, criminality, prostitution, alcoholism, and pauperism are just a few of the undesirable human traits inherited in the same way as color in guinea pigs.
A more restrained iteration of the litany was recorded in Buck v. Bell (1927), the landmark Supreme Court decision that upheld the police power of the states to compel sterilization of mentally incompetent people housed in state institutions. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Great Dissenter, spoke for the majority when he affirmed that “heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility, &c.” Eugenicists in Nazi Germany, who took American legislation as a model when they enacted their own sterilization law in 1933, reduced the litany to one simple, all-encompassing principle: lebenunwertes Leben, or “life not worth living.”
These figures of speech engage what bioethicist Bruce Jennings called the “genetic imaginary,” the representation of some hypothetical future life based on a selective focus on genetic information. Prospective parents construct a genetic imaginary of a future child when they make choices about abortion based on prenatal genetic screening. Anyone who tries to understand the meaning of being “at risk” for a genetic disease does so by constructing a genetic imaginary of life with that disease. Even the trendy consumers who are getting their DNA scanned at commercial gene boutiques are engaging in this imaginary process.
I have spent most of my life trying to understand my own relationship with the genetic imaginary. I’ve spent a long time imagining what Holmes’s “&c.” might mean. I admit, I have an overactive historical imagination. In the 1920s I could have been labeled “hereditary defective.” Today we use kinder and gentler euphemisms. I am the carrier – some might say the victim — of two genetic diseases. A third “affliction” may be waiting in my genes. If there is an emerging genetic underclass, as Dorothy Nelkin predicts, I could run for class president or class clown.
So begins my 2003 memoir, Not This Pig, originally published in Genetics, Disability, and Deafness (Gallaudet University Press). Global attention to Chantal Sebire’s plea for euthanasia convinced me to republish the essay on this site. Please read more and let me know what you think.