Eugenics is the attempt to deliberately improve the hereditary, genetic traits of a particular race in order to improve the race as a whole. In particular, eugenics, meaning “good birth,” describes the regulation and manipulation of reproduction to reduce the incidence of genetically derived problematic traits while increasing the incidence of ideal genetically derived traits. Supporters of eugenics believe that active human intervention can create a stronger society by gaining a better understanding of genetic traits and their relationship to societal success. Critics of the eugenics movement believe that such attempts violate individual human rights and may remove desirable traits from a population. Further, the critics believe that eugenicists have oversold the power of genetics and have failed to take into account the environmental influences that affect wealth, morality, and mental health.
Sir Francis Galton
The origin of eugenics is most frequently traced to Sir Francis Galton, a statistician, biologist, geographer, and sociologist who was the first cousin of Charles Darwin, the founder of modern evolution. Galton made numerous contributions to the field of science, including an understanding that intellectual traits were distributed in a manner similar to that of physical traits and an understanding of the heritability of behavioral and intellectual traits. In addition, he created a single numerical representation to measure the correlation between variables.
Through his work, Galton found that human behavioral traits could be passed down from parents to their offspring. Because of this, he believed that humans had the ability to improve themselves by gaining a more thorough understanding of the laws of heredity. Galton hoped that this understanding would help with the identification of select individuals who exhibited desirable traits such as high intelligence or strong moral character. Those identified as having ideal genes could then be encouraged to marry at a young age and have large families.
Galton was greatly concerned at the rate of reproduction of individuals he believed to be least fit. He believed that individuals identified as having undesirable traits should be discouraged from procreating at all. He recommended public health policies such as segregation, sterilization, and other measures designed to prevent individuals from marrying or having children. Galton wrote that the church was performing a great disservice to its societies by preaching the importance of celibacy amongst parishioners—the very churchgoers who presumably had desirable moral fiber and, thus, desirable genes. Galton further criticized social programs that, by providing aid to the sick and to the weak, enabled undesirable genes to persist in a population.
Hoping that societies would be made up of individuals who were stronger, healthier, and more vigorous than societies of his day, Galton promoted eugenic practice. He supported teaching laws of heredity and systematically studied factors that encourage large families. To advance his eugenic philosophy, Galton employed his statistical expertise to communicate his findings to those individuals with the traits he deemed desirable such that they might have large families. Galton hoped that societal pressures would influence individuals to conform to eugenic requirements of marrying and child bearing with religious-like zeal.
Assessing Genetic Abilities
Eugenicists felt that it was important to systematically evaluate the genetic pedigree of an individual. One method to identify genetic desirability was to examine an individual’s family tree. Through this process, eugenicists would determine the number of ancestors who had particular traits. Families whose pedigrees included academic or business success, long life, strong moral character, and a healthy constitution would be encouraged to breed prolifically. Those who were identified with an ancestry marred by developmental disabilities, criminal records, or psychiatric disorders would be discouraged from breeding.
Intelligence tests were another important component of recognizing an individual’s genetic desirability. Those with mental ages below 8 or 12 could be discouraged from procreating or involuntarily sterilized. Other more direct methods of assessment involved simply looking at an individual’s accomplishments. Thus, those who were poor or ill were assumed to have undesirable traits such as a poor work ethic and low intelligence.
Eugenics in the 20th Century
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Fascists in Nazi Germany most enthusiastically embraced the principles of eugenics. Nazi scientists ordered the involuntary sterilization of mentally ill patients and people with inherited diseases, “euthanized” children termed incurably ill, and encouraged the abortion of fetuses of Jews and other members of what they considered undesirable races. Geijman and Weilbaecher note that in 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring was passed, resulting in the involuntary sterilization of 400,000 individuals deemed unfit for procreation.
While extreme forms of eugenics are typically associated with Nazi Germany, many eugenic ideas and practices were espoused in the United States. The American Eugenics Society was founded in 1923. Those directly and indirectly associated with the American Eugenics Society participated in both positive and negative movements. Some groups pushed for strong and fit communities and exhorted families to strive to be as healthy as possible. Positive eugenics movements were the attempts to ensure that healthy people procreated prolifically.
The negative eugenics concepts drew much more controversy. The assumption behind the negative eugenics movement was that children born to criminals or to the “feebleminded” placed a great burden on society. The American Eugenics Society placed exhibits at county fairs around the nation to delineate the fiscal impact of each individual born with a mental defect. Some eugenicists recommended euthanasia for children they determined would derive no meaning from life.
While euthanasia continued to be viewed as an extreme position of the eugenics movement, the sterilization of the mentally ill gained broader acceptance among psychiatrists and other mental health professionals during the 20th century. As early as the 1890s, guardians of children and adults in mental asylums devised ways to ensure that their clientele did not procreate. Laws promoting the sterilization of individuals deemed incompetent were passed as early as 1909 in Indiana. By the 1920s, a Virginia law legalizing the involuntary sterilization of men and women with developmental disabilities was argued before the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell and found not to violate the 14th Amendment right of equal protection under the Constitution. The Eugenics Society strongly encouraged the practice of sterilization in the 1930s, during which an estimated 60,000 people with developmental disabilities were surgically sterilized.
In other parts of the country, laws restricting marriage were created to prevent the breeding of individuals deemed eugenically unfit. By annulling and disallowing marriages, states hoped to prevent contamination of the gene pool. The first such law was passed in Connecticut in 1895 and was eventually found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1967.
Eugenics in the2lst Century
It is commonly thought that the eugenics movement died after World War II. Certainly, government-sponsored attempts to prevent groups of people from marrying or procreating currently garner little support in the United States. Yet, there continue to be strains of eugenics that permeate the popular culture. The use of genetic education may frequently be used to help individuals understand diseases for which they might be at risk. Today, genetic screening is common in the United States. Parents who learn that their child suffers from a genetic abnormality are faced with the decision to give birth to a child with a genetic disorder such as Down syndrome or to abort the fetus. This practice has recently come under attack in the popular press as being eugenic. Fertility practices have continued to move past genetic screening to genetic planning. The Human Genome Project has created the opportunity to understand the relationship between genetics and the phenotypic traits demonstrated within a particular environment. Procedures such as in vitro fertilization and preimplantation screening give parents some control over a child’s genes, allowing for the selection of desirable genetic traits.
For those working in the human services fields, the concept of coerced contraception continues to be debated today. While the discussion of improvement of the society’s gene pool is not made explicit, there are still concerns that individuals with certain forms of mental illness need to be prevented from procreation—even if only for a limited period of time. For example, a psychiatric patient finding herself to be pregnant may undergo psychiatric decompensation. The treatment of mental illness may be jeopardized by a possible pregnancy or may be dangerous to a fetus. Other patients may have a severe psychiatric disturbance such that they are believed to be incapable of caring for a fetus. These issues may be particularly pronounced in the care of adolescent females undergoing psychiatric treatment.
- American Philosophical Society. (2006). Promoting eugenics in America. Retrieved from https://www.amphilsoc.org/exhibits/treasures/aes.htm
- Galton, F. G. (1892). Hereditary genius: An inquiry into its laws and consequences. Retrieved from http://www.mugu.com/galton/books/hereditary-genius/index.html (Original work published 1869)
- Galton, F. G. (1904). Eugenics: Its definition, scope, and aims. The American Journal of Sociology, 10(1), 1-25.
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- Wehmeyer, M. L. (2003). Eugenics and sterilization in the heartland. Mental Retardation, 4, 57-60.