Eugenics was the popular science and associated political movement for state control of reproduction, controversial for its association with the Nazi Holocaust and forced sterilization and racist policies in the United States. In its day it was legitimate science, but today it haunts any discussion of controlling fertility or heredity.

Development of Eugenics

Broadly considered, eugenics represented not only the scientific study of human heredity and the potential controls of the heredity of the population but also the policies that were created based on these scientific principles. Because of this dual nature, eugenics remains hard to define. Eugenics was a dominant social, scientific, and political philosophy for thinking about differences in population and public health, and controversial as it was even at the time, it represented the state-of-the-art thinking in the 1920s through 1940s. Despite these difficulties in definition, one thing that eugenicists (scientists, philosophers, politicians, and even Christian clergy) had in common was a belief that reproduction should be controlled based on social considerations and that heredity was a matter of public concern. Although both the set of scientific theories and the associated social movement that aimed at the control of human heredity have since been discredited, they were considered acceptable and scientifically credible in their time and have had a lasting impact. Eugenicists were among those who pioneered in the mathematical evaluation of humans, and their influence in turning biology into the quantitative science it is today should not be underestimated.

The eugenics movement reached the zenith of its influence in the 1930s and 1940s, having influenced public health and population control policies in many countries. Its credibility only slowly faded away, even after being popularly associated with the doctrines of anti-Semitism and genocide of the National Socialist Party in Germany during World War II. Because of this connection to the atrocities of World War II, it is easy to forget the extent to which eugenics was accepted as an important science in the United States, which had enacted policies based on its precepts.

The word eugenics (from the Greek for “well bred”) was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. It represented his participation in a broad cultural movement focused on breeding and heredity throughout the educated middle class of England and the United States. Galton was inspired to work on evolution and heredity by considering the writings of his cousin Charles Darwin and the economist Thomas Malthus, who both had been key contributors to the popular interest in population-level studies in biology during the 19th century. Darwin’s theory of evolution stressed the importance of variation within populations, whereas Malthus’s work focused on the dangers of overpopulation. From a synthesis of their works, Galton proposed a new science that would study variation and its effect in human populations. Though classification systems based on race and other factors existed, Galton’s work advanced and popularized the idea of differing hereditable traits and their potential dangers.

Although best known for his work in eugenics and genetics, Galton was a Renaissance man. He studied and did research in mathematics, meteorology, and geography; served with the Royal Geographical Society; traveled widely in Africa; and was a popular travel writer. His groundbreaking work on statistics is recognized as some of the earliest biometry (or mathematics of biological variation); his work was crucial in the early development of fingerprinting as a criminal science. Although these activities seem disconnected, Galton’s commitment to the idea that mathematical analysis and description would provide deeper understanding has lived on in genetics and biology.

The goal of eugenics both as a scientific practice and as a social philosophy was to avoid what was considered to be the inverse of natural selection, the weakening of the species or “dysgenics,” literally “bad birth.” As humanity became better able to take care of the weaker, and as wars and revolutions were seen to take a greater toll on the elites and the intelligent, the population was believed to be diminishing in quality. The argument suggested that as the physically fit fought in the two world wars, the disabled remained at home receiving government support, and as the smartest struggled to learn, public schools and factory work allowed the least well adapted to survive. Similarly, racial and economic differences were seen as promoting higher birth rates among these lower classes, whereas the “better born” were seen to be having too few children in comparison. Contemporary fears about birth rates in the developed world (i.e., Japan, France, and the United States) being lower than the birth rates in the less-developed world (i.e., India, China, and Latin America) suggest that these fears remain active.

For Galton and other eugenicists, the disparity between who was reproducing and who should be reproducing demanded intervention. Galton envisioned many ways to intervene, but drawing on the metaphor of domestication and breeding of animals that appeared in Darwin’s work, Galton favored what would later be called positive, as opposed to negative, eugenics. The positive–negative model is based on the distinction between encouraging the increase of the reproduction of the favored and preventing the reproduction of the inferior. Galton proposed incentives and rewards to protect and encourage the best in society to increase their birth rates. In the end most national eugenics policies were based on the negative eugenic model, aiming to prevent some people from having children.

Popularization of Eugenics

The control of reproduction by the state has a long history in practice and in theory, appearing in key political works since Plato’s Republic, wherein the ruler decided which citizens would have how many children, and this history was often cited at the height of popular acceptance of eugenics. Public health, social welfare programs, and even state hospital systems were only beginning to be developed at the middle of the 19th century, and among the social and technological upheavals at the end of the 19th century was an increasingly strong movement to maintain public health through governmental controls. As a result, there was widespread support in the United States for policies that were seen as progressive. In this context, an effort to promote the future health and quality of the population by encouraging the increase of good traits while working to limit the replication of bad traits seemed acceptable.

Broad movements throughout Europe and the United States gave rise to the first public welfare systems and stimulated continued popular concern over evolution. Widely held beliefs about the hereditary nature of poverty and other negative traits led to fear that these new social measures would throw off the natural selection of the competitive world. These debates about welfare and its effect on the population still stimulate concern among citizens of the United States and elsewhere.

Because of popular acceptance and its utility in justifying a range of policies, eugenic science was agreed upon by a wide array of notables who might otherwise have been on different sides of issues. Among those who advocated some form of eugenic policy were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Ku Klux Klan, and the League of Women Voters.

The complex relationship many public figures had with eugenics stems in part from the usefulness of using it as a justification because of its widespread support. Birth control advocate Margaret Sanger publicly supported a rational version of negative eugenics but may have done so only for the credibility she gained as a result. She and other advocates for access to birth control were taken much more seriously by policy makers because they connected the issue with the more popular eugenics movement. In this light, Sanger’s suggestion that the upper classes were able to get birth control despite the laws and that there was a need to change the laws to slow the breeding of the poor, who were unable to attain birth control, may be seen as a political as opposed to ideological choice.

Eugenics organizations and political movements were started in Germany in 1904, Britain in 1907, and the United States in 1910. At the height of the era of eugenics, there were more than 30 national movements in such countries as Japan, Brazil, and others throughout Europe. In some countries coercive measures were rejected; in others policies were more limited, but in each country the adoption of national eugenics programs and popular movements represented an attempt to modernize and adopt scientific methods for advancing the health and well-being of the populace as a whole. Even the most notorious case of eugenics, the Nazi Germany eugenics program, was associated with discussion of the “greater good.” It becomes easy to forget that the Nazi obsession with a healthy nation led not only to genocide but also to national campaigns for healthy eating and the elimination of criminal behavior.

The German eugenics laws were capped by the three Nuremberg Laws in 1935 that signaled the beginning of the Nazi genocide, aimed at “cleansing” the German nation of “bad blood” through negative programs including sterilization and executions while also promoting increased reproduction of those with “good blood” in positive eugenics programs. The Nazi eugenics program sterilized nearly 400,000 people based on the recommendation of the Genetic Health and Hygiene Agency for what were considered hereditary illnesses, such as alcoholism and schizophrenia. Probably the most notorious manifestation of positive eugenics on record was the Nazi program that paired SS soldiers with unmarried women of “good blood” to increase the birth rate for the benefit of the nation.

Sterilization in the United States

The U.S. program was already under way when the German eugenics program was still beginning, and though state governments in the United States eventually sterilized fewer people, their programs were used as a model by the Germans. The center of the eugenics movement in the United States was the Eugenics Records Office (ERO), located at the Cold Spring Harbor Research Center in New York. The ERO published the Eugenical News, which served as an important communications hub and was considered a legitimate scientific publication. By the late 1930s, more than 30 states had passed compulsory sterilization laws and more than 60 thousand people had been sterilized. In 1937 more than 60 percent of Americans were in favor of such program; of the remainder, only 15 percent were strongly against them. In discussions of sterilization, a common consideration was the growing system of institutions and residents. Sterilization was seen as a humane and cost-effective remedy for problems such as alcoholism when compared with lifelong incarceration, and these programs remained a key influence on the development of outpatient treatment for the mentally ill until well into the 1970s.

If there is any practice distinctly associated with the American eugenics movement, it is coerced and forced sterilization. Although Nazi doctors performed these procedures in far greater numbers, in light of the Holocaust their project loses its impact. But in the United States, this same procedure remains shocking. Many of those who were sterilized were residents of mental hospitals and poorhouses who were forced to undergo the procedure. Others were voluntary or temporary patients at state hospitals. It is difficult to know how many sterilizations were performed and yet more difficult to confirm what percentage of those were coerced. Some patients intentionally sought sterilization as a form of birth control; others chose it as an avenue out of institutionalization; some were tricked or forced. Today documents show that some institutions told patients who were to be sterilized that they were going to have appendectomies; in these and other institutions, high rates of appendectomies were recorded. Forced or coerced surgery on a single individual today would seem shocking, but such procedures were legally mandated in some states for more than 50 years. Because those most likely to have been sterilized were the mentally ill and the indigent, we are likely never to know the full story.

Numerous court decisions challenged the legality of state sterilization, and although several state laws were struck down in court, the Supreme Court decisions in two key cases upheld what was considered a legitimate state interest. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Virginia statute requiring sterilization practices was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously wrote in the decision that the law was necessary because “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Carrie Buck, the plaintiff in the case, had been certified “feeble-minded,” as had her mother. When Carrie’s daughter was “tested” at the age of one month and declared to be “feeble-minded,” Carrie Buck did have the presence of mind to question the diagnosis and did not want her to be sterilized, but the Court’s decision came down against her. Although it was not publicized at the time, Carrie Buck’s daughter received further intelligence testing when she was in her early teens and was determined to have above-average intelligence. Whereas many countries slowly rescinded eugenics laws over the course of the second half of the 20th century, in others the laws remain on the books without implementation. The United States and most of the Scandinavian countries are among those that never officially eliminated their eugenics laws, and many others still have public health and hygiene laws from the eugenics period that have simply been modified.

Eugenics and Inheritance

From the 1890s until the late 1930s, a series of laws intending to limit the entry of immigrants into the United States was associated with eugenics, and the laws became increasingly harsh. Although these laws were widely popular among some groups, their explicit racism and isolationism became a growing source of concern for others. This legal link between eugenics and racist immigration policy was associated with the earliest antieugenics responses. Eugenics had initially been associated with the public good and reform, but this association too was tarnished by accusations of racism. Growing segments of the population recognized eugenics as biased against the poor, as noneugenic reformers made social conditions of poverty public and advocated for institutional reform rather than hereditary control of poverty.

In the United States in the late 1930s, in light of the growing upset about the association between eugenics and racism, reformers tried to shift the eugenics movements to a more moderate stance, and many mainstream eugenics groups moved away from hard-line positions. By the late 1940s, the increasing public awareness of Nazi atrocities pushed public opinion even more against eugenics, and the word started to lose its respectability. Eugenics laws were reframed by being called hygiene or public health laws. Many of the reform eugenicists joined other scientists working in the nascent field of genetics, and some were founding members of the American Society of Human Genetics when it was formed in 1948. Although the growing antieugenics sentiment slowly turned eugenics from a dominant scientific field into a discredited memory, scientists who had worked on heredity as eugenicists embedded their study of hereditary diseases and mental and moral traits within Mendelian genetics.

Throughout the rise of eugenics, there was no clear understanding of the mechanism of inheritance within the intellectual community. Although today we have a scientific consensus on the workings of the cell and the importance of DNA, little was known about the inner workings of reproduction and development at the turn of the century. Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) was a Czech monk and biologist whose experimental breeding of pea plants led to his developing a series of scientific laws regarding the segregation, parental mixing, and transfer of traits. The rediscovery and popularization of the work of Mendelian genetics offered an explanation based on finite internal properties of the cell, which appealed to some, but its laws did not appeal to Galton or many eugenicists who saw it as applying only to simple traits such as plant color. The emphasis in Galton’s view was on formal Darwinism, the rate of reproduction, and the role of environment and external factors in sorting the fittest and removing the weak. Mendel’s theory is no longer associated with eugenics, in part because one of its strongest supporters, geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan, opposed eugenics, but many other key scientists involved in promoting the acceptance of Mendel’s work were doing so because it so clearly defined heritability. It was a powerful argument for the lasting and finite specification of heritable traits, and it worked with the idea of eugenics, whereas other theories argued for more environmental impact and flexibility. Although today there is reason to believe that Mendel’s laws oversimplify a more complicated phenomenon, the rediscovery and embrace of these ideas by eugenic science was instrumental in the founding of genetics.

In the early 1970s, around the time the last of the eugenics laws were enacted and only a few years after the latest forced sterilizations in the United States, references in popular press, media, and news sources that suggested that genetic causes of mental and moral defects were at an all time low. In the last 30 years, there has been a steady increase in popular awareness of and interest in genetics and a dramatic resurgence of reference to genetic causes of traits. Between 1975 and 1985, there was 200-fold increase in public references suggesting a genetic cause for crime, mental capacity or intelligence, alcoholism, and other moral and mental traits that had been central concerns under eugenics. This level of interest increased fourfold by the early 1990s and has not decreased. These issues are magnified today in areas where population growth adds to economic and social pressures. Where the use of technology for sex selection and choice of appropriate qualities of one’s off spring becomes more active, it leads to controversy. In India and China, the perceived need to extend control to practices and technologies of heredity has garnered accusations of a new eugenics in media coverage.

Lasting interest and study of eugenics is due to its connection to two perennial questions. First, it asks how much of and what parts of who we are come from our heredity, often described as the debate between nature and nurture, and second, how a society should determine, react, and respond to undesirable traits of individuals. These two questions are interlinked in that a trait that is learned may be unlearned, but biological traits have been assumed to be innate and unchangeable, leading to different sorts of responses from society and law.

Today major news sources and media outlets eagerly publicize front-page stories on new scientific findings based on a widespread interest in genetics and biological traits, such as “gay genes” causing homosexuality or “alcoholic genes” passed along from father to son, but few place the corrections and negative evaluations of these findings in view when they are discredited. Stories run about genes that cause diseases such as breast cancer, without discussing any connection to what can be done in response to these discoveries or their connection with the discredited science of eugenics. Little discussion takes place about why these genes are looked for or what good knowing about them does in a culture that emphasizes individual accomplishment as surpassing heredity in determining one’s life story.

We do not often ask how a history of eugenics has contributed to the demand for genetic explanations and medical testing today, but the idea of heredity, of unchangeable inherited traits, continues to hold particular power despite or because of its importance at the founding of genetics. One explanation is to be found in the American ethos and legends of the self-made individual. The idea that all people start from a clean slate is ingrained into American society, and the American dream of the ability of anyone to work hard and get ahead is challenged by the failure of so many hard workers to get ahead. The persuasiveness of inherited cause for success or failure shifts the discussion away from systemic environmental constraints on success such as racism, sexism, and class, allowing the focus to remain on the individual. Another concept frequently connected to eugenics and to contemporary genetics is the idea of the easy solution, as exemplified in the lasting presence of the 1950s “better living through chemistry” mentality of the single-drug cure. How much easier to imagine fixing one gene, one trait, than to think through the myriad of causes that might otherwise contribute to something we want to change.

Recent Developments in Eugenics

With the successes and promises for the future of molecular biology and genetic engineering, we are offered new avenues and a new reason to rekindle interest in heredity. The eugenicists believed that heredity was important as a predictive and evaluative tool but did not have the means to alter the traits they attempted to study, whereas contemporary innovations promise to offer the potential to act upon those traits determined to be harmful.

Today approximately 1 in every 16 babies in the United States is born with some birth defect, and although the impacts range in severity, the common conception is that any abnormality or defect creates a victim and represents part of a public health problem. Thinking about the victims of genetic disease, it is very tempting to consider a return to state control or even a voluntary eugenics where parents make the choice presented by their doctor. It is this eugenics of choice that has emerged today. As prenatal tests have been improved and are more widely practiced, they are sometimes compared with eugenics. Amniocentesis, in which genetic testing of unborn babies is performed, has been frequently connected to this history because, for most anomalies found, there is no treatment, leaving parents only with the choice to abort or not. Abortion has been connected with eugenics since Margaret Sanger and others championed birth control legalization at the turn of the century. Medical methods of abortion have become more sophisticated, but fertility control methods have been a presence in most human societies in one form or another and always involve the question of what sort of person the child will be and what sort of life the child will have. Explicit mentions of eugenics in contemporary discussions of abortion appear on both sides: pro-choice advocates are concerned about excessive government control of fertility, and antiabortion activists attempt to use eugenic associations with abortion and to compare such procedures with the Holocaust. The language of eugenics is used on both sides to discuss the differential access and use of abortion between the wealthy and poor, between black and white, what sort of people are having abortions, and who is discouraged or encouraged to have children.

The hygiene laws of the first half of the century have faded, and today public health regulations in many states require blood tests before marriage so that couples may be better prepared to choose in having children when they carry some traits. But who decides what traits are to be tested for? If the core of eugenics was a belief that society or the state has an interest in heredity, do we still practice eugenics?

Contemporary premarital blood-test regulations parallel some of the aims and content of the eugenic hygiene laws, though frequently the underlying motivation may be different. In the early part of the 20th century, these rules were enacted based on eugenic arguments against urbanization and growing populations of immigrants and poor and on notions of social purity that we no longer articulate. In recent years, fear of HIV/ AIDS and conceptions of personal risk may have taken their place. More than 30 states have evaluated legislation requiring premarital HIV screening, and states including Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas have passed such laws. Although later concerns over privacy and the damage done by false positives led all these states to eliminate the laws, some of the state laws had gone so far as to ban marriage for those who had AIDS. While the fear at the heart of this social crisis has passed, we cannot say what is yet to come. Neither were these HIV/AIDS laws unusual; many states still require blood tests for other diseases if one wishes to receive a marriage license, and—in an echo of eugenics—some regulations exempt those who are sterile or forbid marriage until treatment for sexually transmitted diseases has been received.

How will recent court decisions that have legally limited parental rights during pregnancy—for instance criminalizing drug use as child abuse—be expanded as society maintains its claim on control of fertility and heredity, and through them a definition of what sorts of control may be acceptable to society?

Also check the list of 100 most popular argumentative research paper topics.


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