During the 20th century more than 60,000 people in the U.S. were sterilized, often against their will, based on the bogus theory of “eugenics.”
What is Eugenics?
According to History.com, “eugenics is the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits.” It is also referred to as “Social Darwinism” and seeks to encourage people of superior health and genetic traits to reproduce while discouraging or eliminating reproduction by those with disease, disability, or low intelligence. In essence, it aims to “breed out” undesirable characteristics and improve the genetic stock of the human race. The theory was popularized in the late 19th century by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin.
While on its face eugenics may seem compelling, it is a flawed theory from a scientific standpoint. According to Nature,
Despite its popularity, the eugenics movement was doomed from the start because most of the traits studied by eugenicists had little genetic basis. Among those characteristics targeted for elimination from the human population were such complex and subjectively defined traits as “criminality,” epilepsy, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and “feeblemindedness,” a catchall term used to describe varying degrees of mental retardation and learning disabilities. The possibility that environmental factors (such as poor housing, poor nutrition, and inadequate education) might influence the development of these traits was dismissed. [Eugenics supporters] were unaware that most of the traits they were interested in actually result from interactions between genetic and environmental factors, something that confounds predictions of complex disease even today.
Another scientific flaw in the reasoning behind eugenics includes the potential reduction of genetic diversity due to selective breeding. Reduced genetic diversity could actually make humans more susceptible to undesirable traits and lead to greater disease among the population. A good example can be found in dog breeding where pure bred dog breeds are often more susceptible to behavior problems and health issues than mixed breeds.
In addition to its weak scientific foundation, eugenics is hugely troubling from an ethical standpoint. The idea of elites deciding what traits are desirable and selectively breeding for those traits is deeply disturbing. If you have any difficulty imagining the moral issues, try thinking about some of your own traits that might be desirous of being bred out of the species. For example, I’m 5’9″. Imagine if the government decided that a goal for humanity was that males should be at least 5’10” or taller and so as a teen I was sterilized. Not being able to have a family would be deeply disturbing and tragic from my point of view to say the least.
Another ethical issue is that not being “feebleminded” or having another undesirable trait may be hard to prove (proving a negative is often problematic). According to Adam Cohen, who wrote a book on eugenics in America,
[Feebleminded is] a very malleable term that was used to define large categories of people that, again, were disliked by someone who was in the decision-making position. So women who were thought to be overly interested in sex – licentious – sometimes deemed feebleminded. It was a broad category. And it was very hard to prove at one of these feeblemindedness hearings that you were not feebleminded.
Eugenics in America
Eugenics was a key concept adopted by Adolf Hitler and promoted in Nazi Germany. Hitler and the Third Reich wanted to create a superior Aryan race. That Hitler promoted eugenics is often taught in schools in the U.S., but the fact that eugenics was popular in the first half of the 20th century in America is lesser known and not widely taught. It is surprising to many Americans that “the United States was an international leader in eugenics. Its sterilization laws actually informed Nazi Germany. The Third Reich’s 1933 ‘Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases’ was modeled on laws in Indiana and California. Under this law, the Nazis sterilized approximately 400,000 children and adults, mostly Jews and other ‘undesirables,’ labeled ‘defective.'” Source.
Indiana passed the world’s first forced sterilization law in 1907 which made sterilization mandatory for criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles in state custody. Twenty-nine other states followed Indiana’s lead and passed forced sterilization laws. California was the leader in this area, sterilizing 20,000 people from 1909 – 1979.
Forced sterilizations were often applied in a racist manner with black Americans, especially black women, making up a disproportionate number of procedures. Here’s a chart based on North Carolina data showing the racial and gender disparity of forced sterilizations:
“So many poor Southerners underwent the procedure that it became known as a ‘Mississippi appendectomy.’ It was only in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, with evolving attitudes toward civil and human rights, that states began repealing their sterilization laws.” Source.
A low point in American history occurred in 1927 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck vs. Bell, an 8-1 decision, ruled that state laws requiring the sterilization of imbeciles and the handicapped was constitutional.
Shockingly, forced sterilizations continue even now. “In the years between 1997 and 2010, unwanted sterilizations were performed on approximately 1,400 women in California prisons. These operations were based on the same rationale of bad parenting and undesirable genes evident in North Carolina in 1964. The doctor performing the sterilizations told a reporter the operations were cost-saving measures.” Source.
Our history of eugenics in America and in Nazi Germany should be kept in mind as science advances in its ability to identify the source of traits in the human genome and even change our genome through genetic engineering. Related IFOD on CRISPR, including the ethical issues is found here.
Are there any rights on this that are still around today?
this is a shameful part of scientific history — and sadly involved serious scientists and prestigious institutions. And was supported by the leading foundations of the day. We still fall into the conceptual trap today when we expect easy solutions to deep and complex social issues. A wonderful science historian friend of mine pointed out to me that public health is to some extent “eugenical” and it is amazing that a fair amount has been written about this.
We have to be always on our guard and our cognitive bias is to want simple solutions.
Great points. Thanks Susan
Great point. These authors do have their “brand” and there is some controversy surrounding each of their views. There is another side to the argument . . . .
Your post is timely since I’m in the midst of reading Why Fish Don’t Exist after trolling your annual reading lists. Great book so far, and while I was aware of the Eugenics movement in the U.S., I had no idea of its breadth or wide spread governmental endorsement.
That book is where I was clued into this topic. I never learned it to the best of my recollection.
I’m glad you had a family and kids. Sincerely, your daughter