Syllabus for ‘Lives Worth Living: Disability, Medical Technologies, and the ‘New’ Eugenics’

I’m currently teaching a 5 ECTS module as part of the Interdisciplinary Masters in Applied Ethics at the University of Vienna. The course draws on my current PhD research, as well as work I did during my research masters in 2020/21. I’m sharing the course syllabus here in case it might be helpful to anyone preparing modules on similar topics, or just looking for resources around these themes.

My thanks to Dr. Ashley Shew, who shares her syllabi and tons of other useful teaching resources at

Course Description

Eugenics was both an ideology and a set of practices: proponents sought to improve the human species through the gradual eradication of defective or unfit members (most prominently, disabled, poor, racialized and indigenous communities), using segregation, institutionalization, sterilization, and in some cases, genocide. Although eugenics is now largely discredited as a politically motivated pseudoscience, the ideas on which it was based about the worthiness of different kinds of people, and ways of improving the human species have a far longer history. Concerns have recently emerged that the same ideas underlie new and emerging medical technologies, such as genetic screening, prenatal testing, selective abortion, medically assisted suicide, and potential future technologies like gene editing and biological enhancement.

These medical technologies are typically presented as a universally beneficial means of improving human lives at the individual and societal levels. But to what extent do these contemporary ideas and practices depend on a eugenicist ideology of human value, worth, and supremacy? Is it possible to have a ‘positive’ eugenics which encourages health and enhanced abilities which does not itself depend on ‘negative’ eugenics which aims to eliminate certain traits, conditions, or ‘kinds’ of people from the human species?

This module will explore past manifestations of eugenic thinking and practices from the standpoints of those who were (or are) the targets of eugenicist ideology and medical technologies: specifically, racialized, disabled, and trans* and intersex communities. We will critically examine the assumptions about life-worthiness, ability, normalcy and heredity which upheld and justified past eugenics, and consider whether and how those same assumptions manifest in contemporary thinking around medical technologies and the desirability of human improvement.


Week 1: March 8th
Introduction to the themes and aims of the course, the syllabus, and the technical requirements (ECTS points, assignments, etc.). Group discussion on course and student objectives.
NB: There are no advance readings for the first class.

Week 2: March 15th
Discussion of disability theories. Introduction to cognitive disability and its connection to eugenics.

  1. Joel Michael Reynolds, ‘Theories of Disability’, in The Disability Bioethics Reader (Routledge, 2022). [8 pages]
  2. Eva Feder Kittay, “Where is the “Dis” in Disability? A Review of The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability by Elizabeth Barnes”; Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 2020. [7 pages]
  3. ‘Not Special Needs’ on YouTube (2 minutes):

Week 3: March 22nd
Getting to grips with eugenics ideology. Brief history of eugenics and its core principles.

  1. Anna Stubblefield, “The Entanglement of Race and Cognitive Dis/ability”, Metaphilosophy, 2009. [18 pages]
  2. “Surviving Eugenics” documentary film. Available at [44 minutes]
  3. Interview with Robert A. Wilson about The Eugenic Mind Project, on New Books in Philosophy podcast (2018). [1 hour]

Week 4: March 29th
Discussing the distinctions between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ eugenics.
Review of first four weeks.

  1. Robert A. Wilson, Chapter 2, “Characterizing Eugenics” (pg. 25-49), in The Eugenic Mind Project (2018).
  2. Robert A. Wilson, “Eugenics, Disability and Bioethics”, in The Disability Bioethics Reader (2022) (pg.21-28).
  3. Two-part interview with Dr. Gregor Wolbring [55 minutes total]
    Part 1:
    Part 2:

Week 5: April 19th
Subhumanization, dehumanization, and species typicality.

  1. Robert A. Wilson, Chapter 4 – “Subhumanizing the Targets of Eugenics” (pg. 77-98), in The Eugenic Mind Project (2018)
  2. Maren Linett, “Eugenics was wrong even when it got it right” [approx. 2 pages]
  3. Robin McKie, “How far should we go with gene editing in pursuit of the ‘perfect’ human” [approx. 2 pages].

Week 6: April 26th
The ‘new’ eugenics – key assumptions and ideology.

  1. Johannes Reinders, Tim Stainton, and Trevor R. Parmenter, “The Quiet Progress of the New Eugenics: Ending the Lives of Persons With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for Reasons of Presumed Poor Quality of Life” (2019) [11 pages]
  2. “Future Past: The Consequences of Misremembering Eugenics” (conference panel) [watch first 45 minutes]

Week 7: May 3rd
Peer-to-peer feedback session and assignment preparation. Discussing ‘quality of life’.

  1. Joseph A. Stramondo, “Bioethics, Adaptive Preferences, and Judging the Quality of a Life with Disability” (2021) [19 pages]
  2. Christine Bruno, “How Do You Qualify a Life?” [12 minutes]

Week 8: May 10th
Getting started with medical technologies. Reproductive technologies and human improvement.

  1. Alison Kafer, “Debating Feminist Futures: Slippery Slopes, Cultural Anxiety, and the Case of the Deaf Lesbians”, in Feminist, Queer, Crip (2012) [17 pages]
  2. (Optional)
    Hugh Ryan, “How eugenics gave rise to modern homophobia.”, 28 May 2019 [2 pages]

Week 9: May 17th
Selecting for/against disability, race, gender, or sexuality – what’s the difference?

  1. Licia Carlson, “Intelligence, Disability, and Race: Intersections and Critical Questions” (2017) [6 pages]
  2. Elizabeth Dietz, “Abortion, Disability Rights, and Reproductive Justice” (2022), in The Disability Bioethics Reader. [6 pages]
  3. (Optional): Desiree Valentine, “(Re)producing kinship: race, gender, disability and assisted reproductive technologies” [33 minutes]

Week 10: May 24th
Selection, deselection, and the expressivist objection.

  1. Sophia Isako Wong, “At Home with Down Syndrome & Gender” (2002), [26 pages]

Week 11: May 31st
Disability, illness and health.

  1. Sean Aas, “Disability and the Definition of Health” (2022) in The Disability Bioethics Reader. [7 pages]
  2. “Race, Genomics and the Spectre of Eugenics in Medicine Today” [54 minutes]

Week 12: June 7th
Disabled futures and the future of ‘disability’ – reviewing ‘positive’ vs ‘negative’ eugenics.

  1. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Case for Conserving Disability” (2012) [15 pages]
  2. Exercise:
    Find an example in film, literature, or other media of disabled/non-disabled futures.

Week 13: June 14th
Beyond reproductive technology: assistive technology and techno-ableism.

  1. Ashley Shew, “From a figment of your imagination: Disabled marginal cases and underthought experiments” (2020) [8 pages]
  2. Alison Kafer, “At the same time, out of time: Ashley X”, in Feminist, Queer, Crip (2012) [21 pages]

Week 14: June 21st
Normalization, ableism, and eugenics.
Module review session.

  1. Rua Mae Williams, “Metaeugenics and Metaresistance: From Manufacturing the ‘Includeable Body’ to Walking Away from the Broom Closet” (2019) [15 pages]
  2. Jillian Wiese, “Common Cyborg” [approximately 3 pages].
  3. Ashley Shew & Jillian Weise, “Cyborgs”, on the Disability Visibility podcast (35 minutes).

Week 15: June 28th
Peer-to-peer feedback on second assignment outlines.
Closing party & short film screening.