Imagine a perfect human being: physically strong, immune to disease, intelligent, law-abiding. Eugenics, the science of better breeding to improve the human race, aimed to create a race of such ideal humans. Sir Francis Galton first coined the term in 1883, and it quickly gathered widespread support across the world.  Although the term eugenics has fallen out of favor in recent years, the issues it raises are still relevant in today’s world, as stem cell research, genetic engineering, and biotechnology raise the possibilities of curing diseases, eliminating inherited disabilities, and creating “designer babies.”  As research continues, scientists, politicians, and the public must be aware of the history of eugenics ideas, and be conscious of how scientific ideas can be misused to take away individual freedoms and rights.
In 2004, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum explored these issues in the exhibit Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. Through artifacts, documents, and audio-visual programs, the exhibit aimed to tell the story of Nazi eugenics programs in order to “reflect on human motives and behavior during the Holocaust, and in the process, to consider our own moral choices and responsibilities.” 
Deadly Medicine opened with an history of eugenics in both Germany and the United States, showing how in the early twentieth century, support for eugenics was widespread among scientists, doctors, and politicians. The next segment explained how the Nazi party accepted eugenic ideas and put them into practice with efforts to raise the birthrate among ideal “fit Aryans”, marriage restrictions, and, most disturbingly, mass sterilization programs of those declared “hereditarily defective.”  The final section detailed Nazi euthanasia programs, culminating in the mass murder of millions of Jews, Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, and others. This exhibit powerfully explained how eugenics ideas contributed to the horror of the Holocaust; in their view, Nazis were performing a public service by removing “undesirable” people from the gene pool. They believed they were helping to improve the human race.
Visitors to the exhibit quickly made connections between historical events and contemporary issues. After viewing the sterilization display, one doctor commented, “One can only wonder: At what point would I have turned away?” The idea of engineering a perfect human is so appealing that it is easy to lose sight of the damage done in the process. Similarly, a disability rights advocate reflected on a memorial to children with disabilities killed by Nazis: “Looking at the photos of doomed children, I see my old crowd. They could be us. We grew up knowing we were a category of person that the world did not want.”  This sobering comment prompts us to pause and consider how easily the quest for perfection ignores those who don’t fit the mode of the ideal person. Eugenics assumes that those with disabilities, mental illnesses, or other “undesirable” traits are not worthy of life, but that couldn’t be more wrong. These individuals are more than capable of living fulfilling, meaningful lives, and deserve the right to make their own choices about how to live and whether to reproduce.
Recent scientific advances such as germline gene editing are bringing us closer to the possibility of eliminating inherited diseases.  While this is a major breakthrough and offers hope to many people living with serious diseases, scientists must remember that the same idea of eliminating “bad” genes is a key feature in eugenics ideology, and led to forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, euthanasia programs, and the oppression of millions of people. As one visitor to the Deadly Medicine exhibit wrote, “If left unchecked, science can be destructive.”  As powerfully illustrated in this exhibit, we all have a duty to be aware of the legacy of eugenics in order to respect the human dignity of all individuals, and tread cautiously in the future.
 Chloe S. Burke and Christopher J. Castaneda, “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 6.
 James Gallagher, “’Designer babies’ debate should start, scientists say,” BBC News, last modified January 18, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30742774.
 Susan Bachrach, “Deadly Medicine,” The Public Historian 29, no. 3 (Summer 2007), 21.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 26, 29.
 David Cyranoski, “Scientists sound alarm over DNA editing of human embryos,” Nature, last modified March 12, 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-sound-alarm-over-dna-editing-of-human-embryos-1.17110. For more on germline gene editing. see The Science Behind ‘Genetically Modified Humans’.
 “Deadly Medicine”, 31.