Surgeon general nominee has chilling views on eugenics

Published Aug. 26, 1993|Updated Oct. 9, 2005

Although the Senate vote on confirming Dr. Joycelyn Elders as the next surgeon general of the United States has been delayed, she will surely take office. But for the record, it's illuminating to contrast her with a predecessor, Dr. C. Everett Koop, as to how the American Zeitgeist is moving toward an acceptance of eugenics.

People who want to stop the breeding of those whom they regard as the physically and intellectually unfit have been uncomfortable with the term "eugenics," because of its history elsewhere in this century. The American Eugenics Society, for instance, changed its name years ago to the Society for the Study of Social Biology.

Dr. Elders' view on preventing at least one kind of defective genetic material from further lowering American population standards was cited on Aug. 5 by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The senator quoted from testimony before the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee by Elders on May 23, 1990. The issue then was the Freedom of Choice Act. In stressing that "abortion has had an important, and positive, public health effect," she pointed out _ by way of celebratory example _ that "the number of Down's syndrome infants in Washington state in 1976 was 64 percent lower than it would have been without legal abortion."

Dr. C. Everett Koop has a distinctly different attitude. Before he became surgeon general, Koop was the nation's leading pediatric surgeon. And at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, he spent a considerable amount of time and energy on Down's syndrome children. For years, it had been the practice in a number of hospitals throughout the country for some of those infants to be "allowed to die" as the euphemism had it _ very soon after birth. Some called it a late abortion. This was the wish of their parents, concurred in by their physicians.

Koop believes, as he told me once, that Down's syndrome children "are part of the human race." Accordingly, he saved many of those children from extinction, arranging instead for them to be adopted. Unlike the doctors who had told parents that these infants would grow up to be "blobs," Koop knew better. There is a wide range of potential intelligence among these kids, and there is no way of knowing at birth just how far the child will develop.

When he was surgeon general, Koop worked with the Down Syndrome Congress year after year to _ among other things _ dispel the destructive notion that these children were not fit to be among us.

Koop says quite correctly _ that it is not easy to upstage him. He has the presence of a whaling captain who easily ended the career of Moby Dick. But once, as he tells the story, he was eclipsed on stage. It was by a 14-year old Down's syndrome youngster. "It happened in Cincinnati," Koop recalled, "and he was to introduce me. He walked across the stage, stood before the microphone, and said, "I have Down syndrome. That means I have 47 chromosomes. And you,' he turned to me, "have only 45.' "

Some of Dr. Elders' supporters say she is like Dr. Koop in her forthrightness, but there is more than that to Dr. Koop. He used to mention the "extraordinarily strong and warm bonds between Down's syndrome kids and their families." As a reporter, moreover, I've done a number of stories on children with disabilities, and I've seen those bonds. And Down's syndrome kids vary in intelligence and in their ability to hold a job, but they certainly are not "blobs," and they are more open and honest than a good many "normal" people I have known.

Sen. McCain mentions a recent recipient of the Jefferson Award, given to people across the country who have devoted themselves to service to others. One of the winners, Cindy Todd from Phoenix, helps people with disabilities. She has Down's syndrome.

"I dare say," the senator points out, "that her family, and the community and individuals whom she serves, would be shocked to learn that the individual who aspires to be surgeon general of the United States believes that Cindy's life should have been extinguished."

Reporters who cover the man who nominated Dr. Elders might ask him whether he believes eugenics is the way to go. It would certainly be cost-efficient. In any case, Dr. Elders' credo _ and the reactions to it _ are not about the general abortion debate as such. The chilling prospect in this debate is having a surgeon general of the United States who believes that one of her missions is to perfect future generations in this way. Which defect would be next, according to the surgeon general?

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.

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