Eugenics is a broad term for policies aimed at the genetic improvement of the human race. Whereas most people are familiar with the eugenic practices of the Nazi Party, fewer realize the widespread international use of such practices, both before and after World War II. Derived from the Greek word meaning “well born,” eugenics falls into two types: positive and negative. Positive eugenics is encouraging people with “good genes” to reproduce, whereas negative eugenics refers to discouraging reproduction by people with “bad genes.” Often these policies are couched in terms of the “fit” and the “unfit.”
Unlike social Darwinism, which argues that social systems will, if left alone, provide checks against poor breeding, eugenics implies an active role for the state. Eugenic programs include forced sterilization for those deemed unfit, as well as the criminalization of abortion for the fit. The definition of fitness is, of course, socially constructed and reflects the biases and agendas of those in power, as well as the state of scientific knowledge at the time of implementation. Although overt eugenics programs, such as murder and compulsive sterilization, fell out of favor (at least publicly) after World War II, the ideology of eugenics is still very much alive.
Programs of selected breeding have existed since the time of the ancient Greeks. Plato wrote in The Republic that the “best men” should reproduce with the “best women” as often as possible and that the “inferior” should reproduce as little as possible. The Spartans also practiced passive eugenics, leaving newborn infants in the elements to determine their physical hardiness. During the 1860s, Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, systematized the ideas behind this history and titled them eugenics. Galton argued that behavioral and personality traits, such as criminality and intelligence, were linked to genes. As social welfare programs grew, he argued, society was effectively preventing the human species from ridding itself of the genes responsible for society’s ills.
The American Eugenics Movement
American eugenicists appropriated Galton’s ideas in the 1880s when radical social change brought by increased immigration and economic changes created unease in the minds of Americans. Eugenics quickly became a popular ideology, attracting many highly respectable supporters. For example, Alexander Graham Bell studied the rates of deafness at Martha’s Vineyard and determined (correctly) that deafness in this community was genetic in nature. Incorrectly extending his findings to all deaf people, he argued for prohibitions on marriage and childbearing for anyone with deafness in their family.
In 1896, Connecticut passed the first law prohibiting marriage on eugenic grounds. Charles B. Davenport, a prominent U.S. biologist, received funds from the Carnegie and Rockefeller Institutes. Using that money in 1910 to found the Eugenics Record Office, he began to promote eugenics nationwide. In 1914 his partner, Harry Laughlin, published a model eugenics law. This model law called for legalized sterilization for the “socially inadequate” (those supported in part or entirely at public expense), and it was the blueprint for the German eugenics program in 1933.
Eugenics became more explicitly tied to racism and xenophobia when eugenicists served as expert witnesses for the passage of the Immigration Act of 1921. Because of their congressional testimony regarding “unfit races,” immigration from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe decreased from an annual average of 780,000 to 155,000 annually. But eugenicists did not focus solely on outside threats. Although there were no federal eugenics statutes, many states engaged in forcible sterilization of the unfit. Evidence of unfitness included such things as disability and criminality, as well as sexual deviance and poverty. African Americans and Native Americans were sterilized in large numbers and were often the subject of laws preventing their marriages.
In the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, the court upheld the rights of states to sterilize “imbeciles” (i.e., the mentally deficient). Ruling on a 1924 Virginia law, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes determined that it was in the best interest of the society to actively improve the gene pool and commented, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Although little hard evidence existed as to Carrie Buck’s actual mental state, only one justice dissented, thereby laying the legal groundwork for new and more expansive state laws. Those considered unfit could legally be sterilized without consent and often were segregated into asylums where they were victims, sometimes fatally, of neglect and abuse.
The American eugenics movement did not exist solely within the courts, however. It was also an integral part of U.S. culture. The movement had displays at many local and state fairs and encouraged people to take part in its “Fitter Family” contests, where families competed in categories of attractiveness, vitality, and intelligence to be deemed the most “fit” and appropriate to reproduce. Films like The Black Stork entertained viewers and educated them about the dangers of ill-advised breeding. Mobile exhibits demonstrated the cost of poor genetics through displays with flashing lights next to statements like “Every fifteen seconds 100$ [sic] of your money goes to the care of persons with bad heredity such as the insane, feebleminded, criminals, and other defectives.”
Eugenics Through the Back Door
After world awareness of the atrocities of the Nazi regime, overt eugenics fell from favor. However, the ideology did not go away completely. The Eugenics Record Office closed in 1944, and all of its records went to the Institute for the Promotion of Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota. Eugenics was, in effect, made over but not eliminated. Today many scholars speak of eugenics “coming in from the back door.” Replacing the language of “fitness,” associated with overt eugenics programs, is a more humanitarian language, with a focus on alleviating the suffering of individuals or society.
For example, although compulsory sterilization for poor women was no longer lauded as the salvation for the human race, it was still practiced in many U.S. cities well into the 1970s. Doctors pressured poor African American women, particularly those on welfare, to have the operation. Others still were sterilized without their consent when they went in for unrelated medical treatments. This practice, justified as a social cost-saving measure, was so common, it was given a name: the “Mississippi appendectomy.”
But sterilization and immigration restrictions are not the only way to affect the gene pool. With more advanced scientific testing, doctors can diagnose certain conditions in utero and perform selective abortions. The work of the Human Genome Project suggests that at some point in the future, couples may create a “designer baby” with preselected traits, an idea sometimes referred to as “reprogenics.” In the 1990s, the Repository for Germinal Choice, more commonly referred to as the “Genius Sperm Bank,” opened its doors, promising carefully screened and morally upright women the chance to bear the child of a Nobel Laureate.
Eugenicist beliefs about race, while not as overt as those in the first part of the 20th century, are still active. Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, in The Bell Curve of 1994, explored intelligence in America by examining IQ scores and concluded that minorities, particularly African Americans, were inherently less intelligent and therefore less successful than whites. Given their findings, the authors argued that the U.S. welfare system promoted the overbreeding of an unfit class of people. They argued for the elimination of welfare benefits because they subsidize “births among poor women, who are also disproportionately at the low end of the intelligence distribution.” Two years later the federal programs they referenced were substantially cut.
While eugenic modes of thinking still exist, so does resistance to them. The disability rights movement decries selective abortion on the grounds that many individuals with these “selected” conditions live full and productive lives. Racial equity and pride movements focus on the reproductive options of women of color, particularly the coerced usage of long-term birth control such as Norplant and Depo-Provera. Some bioethicists caution against blanket acceptance of genetic testing and manipulation without an appropriate examination of the social forces that cause particular genes to be considered “unfit.” Social scientists argue that the majority of a person’s life chances are determined by social forces irrespective of genetic makeup, citing the fact that health and welfare outcomes are most strongly influenced not by racial factors or prenatal defects but instead by the zip code area in which the person lives.
- Black, Edwin. 2004. War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
- Duster, Troy. 2003. Backdoor to Eugenics. New York: Routledge.
- Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movements. Retrieved March 29, 2017 http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/).
- Katz Rothman, Barbara. 1998. The Book of Life: A Personal and Ethical Guide to Race, Normality, and the Implications of the Human Genome Project. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Kevles, Daniel J. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf.
- Kincheloe, Joe L., Aaron Gresson, and Shirley R. Steinberg, eds. 1997. Measured Lies: The Bell Curve Examined. New York: St. Martin’s.
- Nelson, Jennifer. 2003. Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement. New York: New York University Press.
- Pernick, Martin S. 1996. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915. New York: Oxford University Press.
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