Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Horrors of Eugenics

One of the topics of my research this month, to prepare for NaNoWriMo, is Eugenics. To say that Eugenics is one of the most twisted and awful practices of mankind in modern history is possibly an understatement. Eugenics has been an excuse for all kinds of human rights violations since its conception. Eugenics, for example, is the "science" behind Hitler's master race, and the subsequent extermination of minorities during his regime. Needless to say, after seeing what the extremist application of Eugenics resulted in, it fell out of favor. I wish I could say it had been abandoned altogether and immediately.

On the surface, Eugenics seems like a pretty straightforward and common sense idea-- oversimplified, it applied the breeding practices we apply to livestock and plant-life to humanity. Encourage the people with desirable traits to have more children, and the people with undesirable traits not to have any. But somewhere along the way, we forgot that we don't really have a right to decide what is and is not a desirable trait for the entirety of the human race. And somewhere else along the way Encouraging became Forcing. Laws were passed, The State involved itself-- and not just in Germany, but in America, and the United Kingdom, and several other nations who believed themselves to be forward thinking at the time.

In America, Eugenics took the greatest hold in Mental Institutes. Mental illness, regardless of the circumstances of its acquisition, was considered a very undesirable trait, and as a result, men and women who were checked in began to be sterilized. Sometimes it was done honestly but the doctors did not need the consent of their patients and in documented cases, they flat out lied about the procedure. Mental illness itself in the patient did not have to be proven and justification in some instances was specious at best.

In one famous Virginia case, a woman who was committed to an asylum for the purposes of hiding a pregnancy was subsequently sterilized on the very flimsy evidence that she had passed on her supposed mental illness to her seven month old daughter--a supposed condition she had inherited from her own mother. Later research has revealed that both the sterilized mother and daughter were perfectly functional, and there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of any illness of any kind. The worst that can be said is that the woman was an illegitimate child, and so was her baby. Incidentally, they sterilized her sister too, under the guise of an operation for appendicitis, and she did not learn the truth until much later in life.

I'm sure more case studies will crop up as I continue reading, but one thing you should know is that forced sterilization didn't stop in the US until well into the 1960s. Wikipedia says the last forced sterilization occurred as late as the 1980s. Of course, by that time they no longer called it Eugenics. That particular label had become a dirty word after Hitler's abuse of it. There's more information on Forced Sterilizations, organized by state, posted by the University of Vermont. It's easy to point the finger at Hitler, but in America we were waging our own war against undesirables, too. Would we still be following the twisted path Eugenics led us along, if Hitler hadn't taken it to an extreme? I wish I could say no. I really wish I could say no.

Obviously this is a part of history we can not ever afford to forget.


  1. I mention Eugenics when I teach about WWII, but I'm definitely intrigued to hear how this plays into your NaNo story. It's something not talked about enough- one of those instances in history we definitely don't want to repeat.

  2. I studied this not too long ago when I did a paper on Ethnic Cleansing. The subject became a real hot topic around here especially because of the human genome project. There were those on the ethics panel that feared how the information obtained from mapping the genome would be used. And for good reason. Many people are unaware that Eugenics sparked Hitler's interest. Many who don't know that he began with sterilization first, then moved on to euthanasia. This is sickening to me. Americans should know. How can we avoid repeating history if we don't know it's in our history? Love the topic. As you know, my MS Becoming is loosely based on this very same concept.

  3. Anything that threatens human diversity terrifies me. Just the word eugenics sends chills down my spine and relegating it to history, WWII and Hitler is burying our head in the sand. We have to be aware.

    I'm already intrigued by your new project and you haven't even started writing yet!

  4. Stephanie: If you're mentioning it in your history classes, you're a step ahead of mine. We didn't touch anything near to it-- in fact, I only learned about Eugenics recently on my own, when I read a reference to it as a "Bastard science" in another article. So good on you for teaching about it even in passing!

    Tina: That is the stuff nightmares are made of. I do not even want to THINK about health insurance companies getting their hands on a person's personal information. They could deny coverage or jack up the prices to unaffordable levels, keeping people with "undesirable" health risks from getting the proper care they need-- that would essentially put an evolutionary pressure on the poor, limiting their opportunities. People say "oh that will never happen" but I'd bet real money it will to some extent. The movie Gattaca illustrates the MILDEST horrors of what this could become pretty well, I think.

    VR: It really is overlooked and the fact that these forced sterilization practices continued SO LATE in our own history, even AFTER WWII and the atrocities that happened there-- it's awful! Absolutely awful! And I really think most people don't even KNOW about it. I'll admit that we've done a lot for the disabled and the handicapped as far as rights and protections, but it could so, so easily slide back in the other direction again if we don't keep the history of Eugenics in our mind as we move forward.

  5. Amalia, I am SO SO SO SO glad that you covered this extensively. For my course we had to do a fair amount of studying of old Psychological practices. Not so we would repeat them or anything, quite the opposite. Ethics is really important in Psychology today.

    Anyhoodles I'm really glad you covered it extensively because a lot of people are vaguely aware of the horrors of WW2 and eugenics but not what happened afterwards. Not that many scientists were acquired by our governments for incredibly questionable reasons.

  6. Oh, color me fascinated with your NaNo project.

    Yes, there are a lot of horrors that we've perpetrated on the masses here in the US, but it's not as widely discussed. We discussed it briefly in my history class in HS, but only because one of the students brought it up.

  7. I'm not so sure Eugenics is gone. Today, there are genetic tests for children en utero, and if the result is positive...True, these are for horrible diseases like Tay-Sachs, but what if they find a way to test for mental illness or being prone to heart attacks? Will people choose to end those pregnancies because their children will "suffer?" And in China, the tests for gender have caused people to terminate pregnancies upon discovering the child was a girl!

    So now, we aren't sterilizing people, but we are still controlling reproduction.

  8. Mia: I'm glad to hear it! And I hope you'll correct me if I make any errors along the way here as I get deeper in to my research. I might need you for a reference :)

    Saranna: I'm going out on a limb for my NaNo this year. we'll see how it works out! I think Eugenics is one of those things that really needs to be spotlighted and isn't getting the attention it should.

    JEFritz: You're absolutely right. At this point though, it is no longer state mandated, and that's... well... something. sigh. China is going to really struggle with reproduction in the coming years with the incredible population imbalance between men and women. We'll be witnessing the repercussions of that mentality for a while. As for the rest, I ask myself the same questions, too. It's scary to think about. Even scarier when we start actively manipulating the genome rather than just aborting, if you ask me :-/

  9. Reproduction should be controlled.
    Every person should be allowed 1 child. When you are born you get a ticket, which cannot be exchanged or sold. Upon successful reproduction with another person the biological father and mother each use 1/2 of their ticket. They can go on to use the other 1/2 with any other person but after that, no more children from them.
    Ideally, people would see the damage overpopulation has done and self-enforce this law. However, the punishment for breaking it is forced abortion.

  10. I won't deny that I have had similar feelings-- but controlling reproduction by eliminating diversity based on a flawed or uninformed idea of what is "desirable" or "undesirable" will have a negative effect on the population. Period. Who is to say when we will need the diversity provided by some trait which we believed to be "undesirable" at a later date? Sickle-celled anemia genes, for example, are advantageous to those people living in high-risk-Malaria climates. We NEED diversity. We NEED the genetic lottery in order to ensure that we will have that crucial gene to continue our survival as a species.

    Arguing that the population needs to be controlled does not justify Eugenics and the associated practices. It's a very, VERY slippery slope which I frankly doubt we are capable of fighting through without severe trauma to the entire human race.

  11. Yes. That's why there should be no exemptions or exceptions. Not a less diverse population, just less population.
    Which I know is off the subject a bit.
    Back to the topic:
    Eugenics is inherently flawed but I do wish I had been genetically engineered.
    I blame my parents.

  12. All I can think of when I consider genetic engineering is how we are all going to be really sorry when we eliminate fat reserves and the next ice age hits.

    But I don't think we're capable of creating a no exemptions or exceptions system for population control. Money talks. We'd have to be living in a Utopia or something.

  13. Wow, reproduction should be controlled? lmao, thats so wrong. There is enough food and land on this world to feed everyone.

    Overpopulation is a myth. The Malthusian ceiling is not because of overpopulation, its because of illness, disease, or mismanagement.

    Its shameful that people like Anonymous can't afford to look any farther than their own myopic media outlets and do some research.

    Since you've gone on this tangent, how do you feel about Darwin, and survival of the fittest eugenics, eh Anonymous?

  14. Hey now-- Respectfully, please!

    Tom: In a perfect world everyone would only have the number of children they could take care of effectively--we would all self-regulate reproduction in a reasonable manner (if I have x number of children, I will no longer be able to feed and clothe all of them, or give them the attention they need, so maybe I should stop at x-1). In a perfect world we would not have orphanages full of unwanted children, either. Until we live in that perfect world, there is no way to regulate reproduction and control population without damaging the genome. There will always be that "Oh, this child isn't perfect? well then I'm not going to waste my credit on it" mentality happening-- as we see happening in China with the abandonment and abortion of girls in favor of boys.

    I don't think that overpopulation is a myth, but I definitely believe that mismanagement only aggravates the issue and makes it more dangerous. In Biology, there is such a thing as carrying capacity, and there is a LIMIT to our resources, just as there is a limit to the amount of oil in the ground, except that when we run out of earth and air and clean water, it will be a heck of a lot harder to find substitutes and alternative methods of survival. While humans may be a bit better at managing resources to stretch things out via farming and etc, we will hit it eventually. Maybe if we find new open planets in the galaxy and the space program advances enough to send people to them, that will be different-- but I'm not sure strip mining the universe is really the answer either.

    Either way this is a difficult issue, and people are going to have different answers and different beliefs. I don't blame anyone for not having faith enough in humanity to believe we can regulate ourselves with any kind of efficiency-- we've already proved we can't. So what's the next step? State-mandated and controlled regulation. Except that there is no way to do that without upsetting the balance of nature-- because we can't regulate ourselves without risking the destruction of traits we may need in the future to survive, and there will always, always, always be an agenda.

  15. "There is enough food and land on this world to feed everyone... Overpopulation is a myth."
    I guess you can't see that ocean fish are being fished into extinction. Or that entire ecosystems are continuously being threatened and destroyed to create more farmland and more housing.
    You probably can't see that from on top of your pile of 89c cheeseburgers.
    Other people are starving Thomas. The world is suffering from humanities unchecked growth. There are no more fruited plains left to expand to and no more virgin continents to plunder. If we don't check ourselves nature eventually will, and it is going to be ugly, Thomas. You won't like it.

    Also, please tell me what 'my own myopic media outlets are'. I'd like to know.

  16. Thanks for sharing this.

    Good luck with Nanowrimo!

  17. Fascinating. I look forward to hearing more about your research. I did a paper on Eugenics and the Native American population. Horrific things happened well into the 1970's. You're right. This subject isn't talked about enough.

    I did a quick google search, and thought these articles might interest you:



    Your point about Hitler, and if he hadn't taken this to an extreme, is so true.

  18. Thanks so much Diana! I am looking forward to combing through those websites. Well. Kind of. In that I am prepared to be horrified, but can't really stop myself from researching it anyway.

    Yeah-- it kind of scares me to think about what might have happened if Hitler hadn't scared the pants off the world. But what Hitler did also scares the pants off me. The fact that we were still engaging in Eugenics-like practices well after Hitler... Well. That is not a point in our favor as a nation, to say the least.

  19. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!


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