In brightly lit hospital operating rooms, crowded nursing homes, busy research labs, and doctors' offices, an unannounced, lethal war is being waged against the weakest of the weak: handicapped infants, the elderly, and humans at the embryonic stage of life.

The opening shot in this war was fired when the modern eugenics movement came into fashion some 80 years ago. The first targets were the "feebleminded" and people of the "wrong" race. Leading scientists in the early decades of the 20th century, enamored with Darwin's theories, became eugenics advocates. Historian Richard Weikart, in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, writes that while Darwin wasn't the first to argue that the strong and healthy have higher value than the weak and sick, or that some races are inferior, he provided a scientific foundation for those beliefs.

Some scientists actually compared the mentally ill to apes. Textbooks reported allegedly scientific findings that Africans, Native Americans, and Australian aborigines were subhuman. The eugenics movement brought about the sterilization of thousands of supposedly "inferior" people.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in. Among the most enthusiastic proponents of forced sterilization was Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in Buck v. Bell (1927) that "it is better for all the world" if "society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. … Three generations of imbeciles are enough." Holmes's third generation of "imbeciles" was a woman named Vivian Buck, who was no such thing—nor was her mother. As Harry Bruinius documents in Better for All the World, determinations of "feeblemindedness" and "imbecility" were based on little more than pseudo-science and prejudice.

This pseudo-science was all the rage in Vienna and Munich, where a young Adolf Hitler proposed his radical ideas for the "master race." Weikart writes that among the few authors we know Hitler admired, some were steeped in that culture. The long lines leading to gas chambers—the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the developmentally disabled—became the ultimate result of those theories.

Seventy years later, eugenic ideas are surfacing again, masquerading as humanitarian progress—as in research labs where scientists destroy "leftover" human embryos to find cures for diseases, or in sperm banks where women select their baby's father from hundreds of donors on the basis of intelligence or gifts, or in doctors' offices where parents feel subtle pressure to abort imperfect fetuses, or in hospitals when futile-care policies allow doctors to decide who lives and who dies. Today, some ethicists, like Princeton's Peter Singer, brazenly argue that it's permissible to kill disabled children after they're born—children like my autistic grandson, Max—all in the seductive guise of maximizing human happiness.

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This utilitarian logic is being applied not only to taking life but also to creating it in the image of man. English scientists are attempting to create "designer babies" by transplanting the nucleus from the cell of a woman with defective mitochondria into the healthy egg of another woman. The resulting child would have three genetic parents. It's the first step toward genetic engineering of human beings.

Today, scientists are fashioning a "master race" not by herding "inferior" people into gas chambers, but by practicing involuntary euthanasia throughout the life cycle. As Judeo-Christian influence erodes in Western society, traditional ethical norms are giving way to the only remaining absolute: maximizing happiness. But sacrificing one to benefit all soon makes all vulnerable. If we follow the deadly logic of modern utilitarianism, other questions will soon confront us: Why not take the body parts of prisoners sentenced for life to save others, as the Chinese do? Why feed those unable to work or provide medical care to someone in the last stages of illness?

Evolutionary ethics give us no reason to eschew moral horrors. Indeed, as Richard Weikart points out, the early Darwinists stated quite boldly that mass death was necessary in order to improve the race. They "claimed that the winners in the struggle for existence have to 'stride over the corpses of the vanquished,'" Weikart notes. "This is what they saw as natural law. Natural evil serves a good purpose then, that is, of producing higher species."

Eugenics, once discredited, has made a lethal comeback. As we celebrate the Incarnation this month, we are reminded that every life at every stage is precious in God's design. We must help our neighbors understand that this aspect of the Christian worldview—the conviction that all life is sacred—provides the only defense for the weakest in our midst. If, as I believe, the character of a society is ultimately judged by how well it cares for the poor and the weak, what does the return of eugenics tell us about our nation?

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Charles Colson has also addressed the topic of eugenics in the Breakpoint article, "The Eliminators."

His other Christianity Today columns are available online.

Charles Colson is a Christianity Today columnist and author, with Harold Fickett, of The Good Life: Seeking Purpose, Meaning, and Truth in Your Life (Tyndale, 2005), from which The $65,000 Question is excerpted and condensed

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Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
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