December 21, 2007


Hoosier Eugenics: A Horrible Centennial (Eric Schansberg, 12/17/07, SchansBlog)

Sir Francis Galton was responsible for first describing eugenics (in 1865) and then coining the term (in 1883). Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, suggested the study of eugenics to pursue a better human race by applying the basic principles of agricultural breeding to humans.

In time, eugenics became synonymous with "self-directed human evolution" through the conscious choice of who should (and should not) have children. In particular, eugenicists have often been concerned about "inferior" people (e.g., the poor, those with darker skin) having more children than "superior" people (e.g., middle-upper income classes, those with lighter skin).

Galton built upon Darwin's ideas by asserting that the mechanisms of natural selection had been thwarted by human civilization. For example, charity and welfare allowed the poor to reproduce more often.

So, should one help the poor or was that only "making things worse"? In Galton's view, since many human societies tried to protect the weak, they were acting to limit the natural selection that would result in the extinction of the weakest individuals — and thus the strengthening of the human race.

Galton and other eugenicists recommended policy changes in order to improve society, to save it from mediocrity, reversion or even catastrophe. As such, eugenics differed from its cousin, Social Darwinism. While both emphasized hereditary influences on intelligence, Social Darwinists argued that society itself would naturally deal with the problem. Interestingly, the laissez-faire attitudes of Social Darwinists extended from political economy to natural selection while the statist presumptions of eugenicists inclined them to pursue more aggressive methods.

Galton's ideas picked up steam as scientists and physicians lent their credibility and support to his notions. One particularly amazing example: In a medical journal in 1902, Dr. Harry Sharp described the illegal vasectomies he gave inmates in a Jeffersonville, Indiana, reformatory. He argued that it was good for the inmates as well as achieving a greater social good. (Sharp sterilized as many as 456 men over an eight-year period.) Sharp's efforts were well-received and increasingly supported by doctors, agricultural breeders, sociologists and public health officials.

One of the nation's most prominent eugenicists was David Starr Jordan, a past president of Indiana University. Given the intellectual coherence of eugenics with the ideas of that time, plus powerful proponents like Jordan and the extensive lobbying of Sharp, the Indiana Legislature passed its eugenics law on March 9, 1907. It promised to prevent the “procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” The law was repealed in 1921 but reinstated in 1928 — after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia's similar law in 1927 (Buck v. Bell).

In that case, Carrie Buck was a 17-year old girl who was forcibly sterilized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg because she had been pregnant and her mother had been mentally ill. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision and penned this now-stunning quote:

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Eventually, 30 states adopted sterilization laws by the early 1930s. The number of involuntary sterilizations peaked in the 1930s and slowed to a trickle by the 1960s, the last being performed in 1981. In all, more than 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in the United States (more than half in California).

Such laws were never overturned by the Supreme Court. But forced sterilization became obsolete scientifically, ethically and sometimes legally. For example, the impact of Indiana’s laws ended in 1974, when the second piece of legislation permitting compulsory sterilization was repealed by the Indiana General Assembly.

Beyond the United States, forced sterilization was practiced in many developed countries during the 20th century, including for example 60,000 victims in Sweden between 1935 and 1976. But the most staggering legacy of such legislation is that it served as a model for the law adopted by the Nazi government in 1933. In part of its plan to establish a master race, in the memorable words of Ken Myers, Nazi eugenics promoted “the best, the brightest, and usually, the blondest.”

Looking back, the contemporary excitement about research in genetics is understandable if deplorable. The general bent in the late 19th century toward utopianism and the deification of human progress — in all of its glories and manifestations — is well documented. Placing a higher value on the community than the individual is a familiar debate, and one that often played out in favor of the "greater social good" through socialism and communism in the 20th century. (In these matters, who should decide who is “unfit” to live — parents, society or the government?)

Ironically, eugenics found many avid supporters among proponents of Progressivism and among many liberal Protestants with their Social Gospel. (This is sadly, stunningly and thoroughly documented by Christine Rosen in her 2004 work, “Preaching Eugenics.”) And although there were voices crying out in the Wilderness (G.K. Chesterton in "Eugenics and Other Evils," 1922) their cries were mere whistles into an unsympathetic wind.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2007 10:25 AM

The Eugenics movement was saying "B" to the "A" of social welfare. They thought that since compassion was derailing nature's stern discipline, we had to take steps to restore the corrective stress thus mitigated.

This had not been possible, inasmuch as our core values of love of neighbor as well as our rational appreciation of the societal cost of discarding those values prevent it. Better, and I mean this, to have the criminal underclass run wild in the streets, like some mob on monkeys in India, than to degrade ourselves by treating humans as other than human.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 22, 2007 10:31 AM

They hate ethnics and want to kill them, same reason abortion was legalized.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2007 5:05 PM