In this article:
- Sir Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” in the late 19th century, to refer to a pseudoscientific belief that “good genes” could be selected for and “bad genes” eliminated through selective breeding of human beings.
- The traits considered desirable were often based on racist and classist ideals, including non-heritable traits like “pauperism” or “criminality.”
- The eugenics movement paved the way for forced sterilization programs, miscegenation laws, and even genocide.
- Today, it lives on in the continued use of forced sterilization in prisons and immigrant detention centers across the United States.
Throughout history, there have been many scientific ideologies and movements aimed at making humanity better. One that has arguably had the most devastating consequences is eugenics. From sociologists to geneticists to politicians, many experts believed (and some still believe) that we could improve the human race by encouraging people with traits they considered to be desirable to breed.
Termed as positive eugenics, it had a noble goal on the surface but an ugly underbelly. Scientists justified preventing people with what they deemed to be undesirable qualities to reproduce through the lens of negative eugenics. This was the far more prevalent side of the movement.
At their best, proponents of eugenics promoted racism as well as discrimination based on class, immigration status, disability, gender, and sexuality. At their worst, they committed mass genocides.
The Origin of the Eugenics Movement
1883: Sir Francis Galton Coins the Term “Eugenics”
Sir Francis Galton was an avid explorer, anthropologist, and lifelong student of science and medicine. He was also the founder of the eugenics movement.
One of his biggest influences was his cousin, Charles Darwin, a British naturalist known for his contributions to the study of evolution. Darwin’s seminal work On the Origin of Species inspired Galton to explore the idea that we can improve on the human species through selective breeding.
He coined the term eugenics in 1883 from the Greek words eu (good) and genēs (born). The eugenics movement’s main goal was to continue reproducing desirable qualities, such as health and intelligence, while eliminating undesirable qualities, such as disability and disease.
This idea gained a lot of traction among the scientific community but ultimately reinforced racism and classism. Though some experts genuinely believed they were helping humanity, others used the growing eugenics movement to promote the idea of superior and inferior races.
People of Nordic descent, who were predominantly white, were considered “good in birth” or models of the eugenic ideals. Meanwhile, scientists and statisticians were convinced that disease and criminality were high among indigenous groups and people of color, and deemed them inferior.
Of course, this assumption failed to consider that these groups were also marginalized and had limited access to good education, healthcare, or jobs at the time.
Several organizations were established in the early 1900s under the eugenics movement, including the German Society for Racial Hygiene and the American Breeders Association. These groups studied heredity and promoted scientific racism through selective breeding programs.
1907: Miscegenation Laws and Forced Sterilization Programs Sweep the Nation
With racism rampant and fears of miscegenation — marriage or reproduction between people from different races — scientific racism gained wider acceptance in the U.S. Books like The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant promoted racist ideals like “civilization preserve” for the Nordic people through selective breeding.
His racist text also argued that unchecked immigration and miscegenation were contributing to “race suicide.”
As discriminatory as Grant’s views were, they were also shared by many people at the time. This prompted states to pass laws on sterilization. Indiana, the first state to do so, forcibly sterilized people who were institutionalized, for example.
The state also sterilized people considered to be idiots and imbeciles, which were medical terms used to describe people with mental illness and disabilities.
Over the next decades, 32 states with eugenics laws would sterilize over 60,000 individuals without consent. One of the most famous cases of sterilization is Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck was an 18-year-old who became pregnant as the product of rape. Buck had a mental disability and was deemed by the state of Virginia to be feebleminded, which was among the traits considered unworthy of procreating.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who ruled in favor of her forced sterilization, said, “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.”
He added the now infamous phrase, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
1924: Race-Based Immigration Restrictions Aim to “Purify” American Genetics
Coming on the heels of the second International Eugenics Congress where immigration was a hot topic, the U.S. passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. It was one of several policies fueled by racism and it favored immigrants from English-speaking countries. The racist act capped the number of people that can move to the U.S. from Southern and Eastern Europe and completely barred Asians from coming in.
Unsurprisingly, it was drafted by eugenics advocates who believed that controlling who can live in the U.S. would “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.”
How the Eugenics Movement Fuelled the Holocaust
The eugenics movement paved the way for many racist and discriminatory experiments and policies, but by far the most devastating application of the pseudoscience was the Holocaust.
Adolf Hitler was a staunch advocate of eugenics in Europe. He believed that Aryans were the superior race and wanted to preserve Aryan racial purity. In Mein Kampf, he even cited some of the eugenics principles in the U.S. to support his racist ideals. Hitler used the eugenics movement as a justification for committing mass genocide against groups he believed to be contaminating the purity of the Aryan race.
With Hitler’s orders, the Nazi Party imprisoned millions of people in concentration camps. Among those were Jews, Romani, disabled people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
This gave Nazi doctors access to millions of unwilling test subjects. Dr. Josef Mengele’s experiments were some of the most disturbing, which he conducted under the guise of improving the Aryan race. Twins were a common subject of his studies.
He used one twin as the control subject and conducted inhumane tests on the other to prove principles of heredity and support eugenics.
Although World War II had political motivations, Hitler’s racist ideas, which were fueled by the principles of the eugenics movement, ultimately led to the persecution and murder of millions of people. Approximately 11 million were killed during the Holocaust in the name of preserving what Hitler considered a superior race and eliminating those the Nazis deemed inferior.
Traces of the Eugenics Movement Linger in Today’s World
The underlying concept of eugenics isn’t inherently evil. On the one hand, experts incentivized certain groups of people to procreate to ensure that families produced healthy and intelligent children, who would pass on those desirable qualities to future generations. One could even argue that its goal to improve the human race was admirable.
But it’s impossible to only look at the positive side of eugenics. Encouraging only a select few to breed was inseparable from laws and sterilization programs that prevented others from doing so.
The eugenics movement was also unethical because it evolved into an avenue for racism to flourish. The traits deemed desirable were generally based on white supremacist ideals and treated non-genetic traits like poverty and criminality as if they were genetic.
Influential groups and individuals reinforced discrimination based on race, among other things. They also enabled and performed horrifying acts, the passing of sterilization and immigration laws and the Holocaust, to name a few.
These policies weren’t overturned until surprisingly recently. In fact, women were forcibly sterilized in California’s prisons up until 2014. The victims of these coerced tubal ligations were prisoners predicted to end up being incarcerated again in the future.
Eugenicists believed that criminal behavior is inherited and it was one of the traits they wanted to eradicate. This recent string of forced sterilizations is highly reflective of the pseudoscientific movement.
There are some who argue that genetic engineering, genetic counseling, and genetic testing also reflect eugenics practices. Although racism is not necessarily their bias, these modern scientific practices do aim to control the spread of hereditary disorders and disabilities.
Prenatal screening, for example, can tell prospective parents the chances their baby will be born with genetic conditions or birth defects. If the risk is high, they may choose to terminate the pregnancy. Of course, that is more difficult now given the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
The big difference with the racism-fueled eugenics movement of the 19th and 20th centuries and today’s genetic practices, such as genetic testing, is consent. No one should be forced to undergo genetic experiments or unalterable procedures, like sterilization, if they don’t want to.
Prospective parents should have access to critical information about their future children, as well as the right to continue or terminate the pregnancy if they won’t be able to provide for their specific needs.
Of course, another school of thought is that the laws of nature should not be tampered with. There are many who believe that all humans have a right to be born whether or not they are at risk for disease and disability.
It’s safe to say that this is an ongoing debate among many communities, particularly the scientific, medical, and political arenas. Personally, as long as racism doesn’t form the foundation, I think it’s productive to continue having these profound discussions on genetics.