Tuesday, April 29, 2014

On Eugenic Abortion of the Intersex

A century ago, eugenics, the science of breeding "better" humans, was considered the "queen of the sciences." Then came the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews, LGBT+ people, people with disabilities, "Gypsies" and others were murdered by the Germans in the name of purifying the Aryan race.

The first to be sent to the gas chambers were those deemed "lives not worth living": people with disabilities and "deformities."

Germany lost WW II, and afterwards, eugenics was abandoned in the polite sciences, and replaced with genetics. No longer was it considered ethical to speak of breeding better humans by eliminating "undesirables;" instead, genetics was to improve life by addressing itself to pure science or to curing medical suffering.

But eugenics never really went away, and it's operating today through various reproductive technologies such as selective implantation of embryos, and, quite commonly, through prenatal screening for "disorders," which are then "treated" via "therapeutic abortion." Among those characteristics that can been screened for and eliminated are those forms of intersexuality with a genetic origin.

Our medical ethicists today state that selective abortion of female embryos is unacceptable, because there is no medical condition, simply a social preference. Yet termination of pregnancies involving intersex fetuses is deemed ethical, because we are deemed disordered. In essence, this "ethical" position is that it's ok for doctors to select fetuses with disabilities for termination, as it's rational for us to be considered "lives not worth living."

OII Australia has submitted the following comment on guidelines for the use of assisted reproductive technologies in Australia, which you can find here. It argues that intersexuality is not a "disorder," but rather a natural variation. It further argues that medically selecting against intersex pregnancies is akin to selecting against female pregnancies, being based on social biases, and should be considered unethical.

I'm all for that, but I'd go further. I'm pro choice, and believe a pregnant individual should have the ability to terminate an early pregnancy at will, based on her assessment of her readiness and ability to carry a pregnancy to term. But I have grave moral reservations about eugenic abortion--a termination of a pregnancy based on the characteristics of the fetus as determined by doctors. Elective abortion at will relates to people's reproductive autonomy, but eugenic abortion focuses on what types of people are considered valuable or disposible. And, as someone who is Jewish, LGBT+, and intersex, I see a clear continuity between my being a candidate for the gas chamber were I living in Nazi Germany, and my being a candidate for selective abortion were I conceived today. I cannot countenance eugenics.


  1. I don't fully agree. I believe that in cases of very severe genetic disorders, such that would cause the child to live a few years waiting to die, it is simply cruel to let such a child be born. I don't think it's right to abort just because the child will probably be deaf, intersex or suffering from Down syndrome, but more severe cases are something entirely different. It's not that such children are not worth living, they would die very soon anyway and deserve dying before they can know it.

  2. As someone who'd be a candidate both for Nazi gas chambers and for forced pregnancy, I can't fully agree with this.
    I agree that doctors shouldn't *recommend* abortion based on the embryo's intersex status, and should explain it to their patients as a natural variation in human form. But in the end, the decision whether to abort belongs to the patient, and their considerations are their own, and not subject to the evaluation of strangers. (This applies to sex-selective abortion as well.)
    Since you mostly talk about morality and not legality in the OP, I can't tell whether we are in agreement regarding policy.

  3. Hi,

    nice blog. I'm mildly intersex myself, having been cryptorchid. After gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) boosters, my condition was finally corrected by bilateral surgery when I was about 9.

    I believe there is a link, possibly multiple links, between that history and my adult sexual orientation, which is not exclusively but is primarily paedophilic.

    I'm one of a very large number of minor attracted people who live and act within the boundaries of the law and social mores, however I am also very angry at the stigma and prejudice my nature attracts. If the 'final solution' were to resurface in the Anglophone world, paedophiles would be among the first into the 'showers'. Our poor cousins, the 'sex offenders' are already indefinitely detained in large numbers and condemned to live a half life under bridges and away from 'normal', 'decent' society..

    I interpret what your are saying as a call to see the humanity in everybody. I'd add to that the comment that when society begins to deny the humanity of certain people, it is taking a step toward another Holocaust.

    Best wishes,

  4. I am intersex, but I'm not a hypocrite.

    You say you are intersex and oppose eugenic/therapeutic abortions, but are also pro-choice.
    Well if you are against a woman's decision, in any circumstances where you would allow an abortion, you are anti-choice.
    It doesn't matter which way you look at it, this is hypocrisy.
    It can simultaneously be viewed as anti-woman & anti-life, it really is all-round offensive to everyone.

    Despite your argument against eugenics, I suspect a slight ambiguity that many of us share, as to whether we should've been born in the first place. We all feel this, so I have some understanding why people might see such abortion as 'therapeutic' even though I oppose the genocide.

    Exactly who speaks on our behalf? All intersex activists seem to suck up to pro-choice feminists who would defend our elimination as a woman's 'right'. They never seem to tell the public of the inner conflicts our (gasp!) diseases cause so people might be more understanding. What use have intersex activists & academics been when speaking for us?

    1. It's possible to believe that you should be able to choose *whether* to have a child, while not being able to choose *what kind* of child to have.
      Also, do you think pro-choice feminists who oppose selective abortion of female embryos are hypocrites, too?

  5. Dear Dr. Costello, your blog is amazing, but I just want to point out that "g----y" is a racial slur for Romani.

  6. Funny I've been thinking about this same issue recently --great blog post Cary, as usual! :)