Recent news about inmates in a Tennessee county jail being offered reduced jail time if they voluntarily agree to have a vasectomy or birth control implant, has raised concerns about eugenics, an anti-human movement that has haunted America for more than a century. Here are nine things you should know about the eugenics and the movement it inspired:
1. Eugenics is a term that originated in the 18th century to refer to a set of beliefs and practices that has existed throughout human history: an attempt to improve the human race by limiting or excluding what type of hereditary traits can be passed on through procreation. Eugenics typically falls into two categories: “positive” eugenics, which attempts to promote the proliferation of “good stock” by encouraging breeding of people with preferred traits, and “negative” eugenics, which discourages “defective stock” by attempting to limit the breeding of people who possesses negative heritable traits.
2. The term eugenics was first coined Francis Galton, a British geographer and statistician who popularized the notion that humanity could be improved by encouraging the “most fit” to reproduce more often and discouraging the least fit members of society from procreating at all. In 1869 Galton wrote a book, Hereditary Genius, in which he proposed that by arranging marriages between men of distinction and women of wealth humanity would eventually produce a gifted race.
3. Galton is considered the “father of eugenics” because he developed the subject into a topic of serious scientific inquiry. In 1904 he endowed a research fellowship in eugenics at University College, London and, in his will, provided funds for a chair of eugenics at the school. In 1907 he founded the Eugenics Education Society (later known as the English Eugenics Society) to promote eugenicist views throughout the U.K. He also inspired the formation of the Galton Society of America (1918-1939), an organization that helped promote the prestige of eugenics in the United States.
4. Galton had a considerable influence on his cousin, Charles Darwin, and was influenced by Darwin’s work on evolution. Herbert Spencer took the ideas of both men and combined them into the theory of “social Darwinism.” As Gene Veith explains, “To achieve social progress, according to Spencer, the fittest must survive and the unfit must die out. Efforts to help the ‘unfit’—charity for the poor, mental hospitals, government programs for the disadvantaged—actually interfere with social evolution and should be stopped. Meanwhile, unfettered economic and social competition will favor the ‘fittest,’ who will usher in the next stage of human evolution.”
5. In the early 20th century, eugenics became a popular and respected movement in the United States. Eugenic beliefs were supported by a wide range of people, including such luminaries Theodore Roosevelt and Helen Keller. One of the leading advocates of the eugenics movement, specifically of negative eugenics, was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. In Woman and the New Race, Sanger included a chapter to answer the question, “When Should a Woman Avoid Having Children?” Included in her list are the admonition, “No more children should be born when the parents, though healthy themselves, find that their children are physically or mentally defective” and, “By all means there should be no children when either mother or father suffers from such diseases as tuberculosis, gonorrhea, syphilis, cancer, epilepsy, insanity, drunkenness, and mental disorders.”
6. Within a few decades, negative eugenics—particularly sterilization of unwanted people such as minorities and the mentally ill—began to be encoded into state law. By 1925, 20 states had laws authorizing involuntary sterilization of people in institutions, such as prisons and mental hospitals. When the Virginia sterilization law was challenged, the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell (1927) that the “protection and health of the state” trumped procreative autonomy. In the opinion for the 8-1 majority, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:
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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
By 1942, 30 states had sterilization laws. By 1961, eugenic sterilization had been performed on 62,162 Americans, 61 percent of which were women. To date, the Supreme Court has not directly overturned Buck v. Bell.
7. In 1933 the government of Nazi Germany passed the “Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases” (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), mandating the forced sterilization of certain individuals with physical and mental disabilities. This law provides a basis for the involuntary sterilization of people with physical and mental disabilities or mental illness, Roma (Gypsies), “asocial elements,” and Germans of African heritage. The response of churches in Germany varied between conflicted and supportive. One Catholic agency director said, “If we fundamentally refuse, we will run the risk that the Nazis will accuse us of not being staunch Nazis. We might not receive any more clients.” And a Protestant social worker wrote in a report, “Our Land and Volk stand at a turning point of immeasurable meaning. Our [Fatherland] needs not only eugenically superior people, but morally better people. . . . As long as sin exists in the world, we will need the blessings of science to combat it.”
8. Most forms of eugenics fell out of favor after the Nazi eugenics program exposed the horror of the movement. But some remain accepted by the mainstream culture. Today, the most common and widely accepted form of eugenics in America is the aborting of children who have genetic defects, such as Down syndrome. Approximately 67 percent of prenatal diagnoses for Down syndrome result in an abortion, according to estimated pregnancy termination rates from 1995 to 2011. More recent research suggests that abortion after prenatal diagnosis has reduced the population of individuals living with Down syndrome in the United States by approximately 30 percent.
9. While most eugenics since the 1940s has focused on “negative” forms (such as sterilization and abortion), a new gene-editing technology (Crispr-Cas9) may soon make it possible to expand the “positive” forms. Earlier this year Chinese researchers used Crispr to rid normal embryos of hereditary diseases that cause blood disorders and other ailments. But bioethicists warn that the technology could soon be used for the selection and enhancement of such traits as height, looks, or intelligence, leading to broad acceptance of a “neo-eugenics” movement.
Other posts in this series:
North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State