Saturday, January 31, 2009

Netherlands considering eugenics

The Netherlands is considering a law to force unfit mothers to be temporarily sterilized. This moderate form of eugenics has some support, so it is very possible that it could eventually go through. I think this is very clearly unethical, but it is nonetheless worthy of discussion. Briggs Armstrong discusses it here, and there was some debate on the British television show The Big Question (part 1, 2 & 3). The argument basically is a Utilitarian argument, that in the aggregate, the program will do more good than harm, since it will reduce child abuse and neglect only at the expense of some loss of human rights.

Some of the issues that are raised in the include the obligation of the state to help its citizens, the right of people to have children, and the rights of the state to enforce eugenic measures. On The Big Questions, the argument is put forward that "the state has an obligation to help its citizenry..." which includes an unspoken caveat "... whether the citizenry want it or not." But the major dubious assumption that this argument rests upon is that the state actually can help its citizenry. This mandatory sterilization is supposed to address poverty, child abuse and neglect, but, of course the Dutch government, does not have the magic formula for solving any of these problems. The Netherlands hasn't solved them and there is no model that it can look to see a state that has solved these problems either. How can we say the Dutch state has a duty to these children if it ultimately doesn't know how to help them?

Even if the state has some obligation to benefit its citizenry, then wouldn't it be better to try to end programs that are encouraging this problem instead of trying to add another program that tries to stop it and will most certainly have unintended consequences? Poor women frequently have children, in order to get more welfare money? Should we sterilize them, or just stop giving them money? The state has no duty to give them that money; the women have no right to that money; and it will achieve the goal of helping them.

The perverse incentives and unintended consequences created by the welfare system in place should give us all the more pause, when considering something as extreme as eugenics, which is even more liable to create more perverse incentives and bigger unintended consequences. Government actions can have unintended consequences, which lead to further problems, necessitating further government actions, creating further problems and further responses. Sometimes government action can lead to a chain of action and response like some elaborate legal rube goldberg machine, such as the example that Adam Smith gives in the Wealth of Nations, when England closed down all the Catholic churches, which had been responsible for aiding the poor. Without someone to aid the poor anymore, the government forced parsonages to take care of the poor, leading to perverse incentives which the British government had to respond to, leading to more unintended consequences, until finally the poor were ultimately all but forbidden from traveling freely through England, which created huge disparities in labor availability (and thereby wages) from parsonage to parsonage. We can see this type of rube goldberg effect going on in Netherlands now. Welfare increases poverty, drug addiction, and out of wedlock births, so the government tries to respond with mandatory birth control. This will probably lead to unintended consequences, such as racially motivated enforcement (or some other arbitrary criteria) graft from potentially unfit mothers, increases in infanticide as mothers try to avoid becoming officially unfit, or other unintended consequences. These will probably force another response by the Dutch government, and so on.

One might respond, "Maybe this program will be effective. How can we know until we try it out." But this ignores that we are experimenting with human lives, and in a very cavalier way. Damage is being done as we try this out. It also assumes that if the project turns out to be a failure, it will be a simple matter to identify it as a failure and end it. But, the fact is that there is no straightforward criteria for determining success or failure, and the fact is that it can be difficult to end a government program once it is started.

In light of this, it should be clear that the state most certainly does not have the right to interfere in reproduction. The great uncertainty that surrounds such a program, the risk of unintended side effects and perverse incentives, the difficulty of assessing and eliminating such a program were it to be a failure, not to mention the unethicalness of eugenics, all indicate that this is a bad idea and should be scrapped. Not to mention, that if we compare this program to reasonable alternatives, like simply giving women the option of voluntarily being temporarily sterilized, or simply cutting off welfare payments to these women, then we see that such programs have many of the benefits without all the bad sides, and are thus much better options.

Update: I made a mistake on the Adam Smith reference. It wasn't the closing down of Catholic Churches, but the closing down of Monasteries that Adam Smith mentions. Makes more sense now that I think about it, but I guess I was a little absent-minded at the time.

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