Hoosier Eugenics: A Horrible Centennial
I'm really proud of this essay. The history is very interesting; the philosophical and religious links are provocative; and the contemporary applications are important and wide-ranging.
I hoped the longer version would find a home at a larger newspaper, but there haven't been any takers yet-- not surprising given its length (1800 words). The longer version as well as a shorter version was released to newspapers state-wide today.
We observed a dubious centennial this year. In 1907, Indiana became the first state in America to pass a eugenics law.
Eugenics is the study of the hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled, selective breeding. The word derives from its Latin components — eu meaning “well” or “good” and genics meaning “born” or “birth.” Eugenics, then, seeks the products of “good birth” or being “well born” (better human beings or a better human race) through selective breeding.
From there, two categories emerge: Positive eugenics is the study of “good” outcomes achieved through breeding; negative eugenics is the study of “bad” outcomes, when undesirable characteristics are lessened or eliminated through selective breeding.
Beyond mere study, eugenics typically leads to a set of recommended practices. Beyond mere science, eugenics has always been connected to various worldviews and related to other theories. And beyond what we knew about science a century ago, we now have a greater understanding of the extent to which genetics affect such outcomes. In sum, eugenics is a pseudo-science loaded with philosophical and ethical baggage.
Sir Francis Galton was responsible for first describing eugenics (in 1865) and then coining the term (in 1883). Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, suggested the study of eugenics to pursue a better human race by applying the basic principles of agricultural breeding to humans.
In time, eugenics became synonymous with "self-directed human evolution" through the conscious choice of who should (and should not) have children. In particular, eugenicists have often been concerned about "inferior" people (e.g., the poor, those with darker skin) having more children than "superior" people (e.g., middle-upper income classes, those with lighter skin).
Galton built upon Darwin's ideas by asserting that the mechanisms of natural selection had been thwarted by human civilization. For example, charity and welfare allowed the poor to reproduce more often.
So, should one help the poor or was that only "making things worse"? In Galton's view, since many human societies tried to protect the weak, they were acting to limit the natural selection that would result in the extinction of the weakest individuals — and thus the strengthening of the human race.
Galton and other eugenicists recommended policy changes in order to improve society, to save it from mediocrity, reversion or even catastrophe. As such, eugenics differed from its cousin, Social Darwinism. While both emphasized hereditary influences on intelligence, Social Darwinists argued that society itself would naturally deal with the problem. Interestingly, the laissez-faire attitudes of Social Darwinists extended from political economy to natural selection while the statist presumptions of eugenicists inclined them to pursue more aggressive methods.
Galton's ideas picked up steam as scientists and physicians lent their credibility and support to his notions. One particularly amazing example: In a medical journal in 1902, Dr. Harry Sharp described the illegal vasectomies he gave inmates in a Jeffersonville, Indiana, reformatory. He argued that it was good for the inmates as well as achieving a greater social good. (Sharp sterilized as many as 456 men over an eight-year period.) Sharp's efforts were well-received and increasingly supported by doctors, agricultural breeders, sociologists and public health officials.
One of the nation's most prominent eugenicists was David Starr Jordan, a past president of Indiana University. Given the intellectual coherence of eugenics with the ideas of that time, plus powerful proponents like Jordan and the extensive lobbying of Sharp, the Indiana Legislature passed its eugenics law on March 9, 1907. It promised to prevent the “procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” The law was repealed in 1921 but reinstated in 1928 — after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia's similar law in 1927 (Buck v. Bell).
In that case, Carrie Buck was a 17-year old girl who was forcibly sterilized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg because she had been pregnant and her mother had been mentally ill. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision and penned this now-stunning quote:
“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 . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Eventually, 30 states adopted sterilization laws by the early 1930s. The number of involuntary sterilizations peaked in the 1930s and slowed to a trickle by the 1960s, the last being performed in 1981. In all, more than 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in the United States (more than half in California).
Such laws were never overturned by the Supreme Court. But forced sterilization became obsolete scientifically, ethically and sometimes legally. For example, the impact of Indiana’s laws ended in 1974, when the second piece of legislation permitting compulsory sterilization was repealed by the Indiana General Assembly.
Beyond the United States, forced sterilization was practiced in many developed countries during the 20th century, including for example 60,000 victims in Sweden between 1935 and 1976. But the most staggering legacy of such legislation is that it served as a model for the law adopted by the Nazi government in 1933. In part of its plan to establish a master race, in the memorable words of Ken Myers, Nazi eugenics promoted “the best, the brightest, and usually, the blondest.”
Looking back, the contemporary excitement about research in genetics is understandable if deplorable. The general bent in the late 19th century toward utopianism and the deification of human progress — in all of its glories and manifestations — is well documented. Placing a higher value on the community than the individual is a familiar debate, and one that often played out in favor of the "greater social good" through socialism and communism in the 20th century. (In these matters, who should decide who is “unfit” to live — parents, society or the government?)
Ironically, eugenics found many avid supporters among proponents of Progressivism and among many liberal Protestants with their Social Gospel. (This is sadly, stunningly and thoroughly documented by Christine Rosen in her 2004 work, “Preaching Eugenics.”) And although there were voices crying out in the Wilderness (G.K. Chesterton in "Eugenics and Other Evils," 1922) their cries were mere whistles into an unsympathetic wind.
Of course, now we repel in horror at the thoughts expressed by Justice Holmes and in the sterilization laws passed by so many state legislatures. Even so, what I will call the eugenic reflex still lives.
In its heyday, an embrace of forced sterilization was often connected to racism and extreme views on poverty or immigration. (This is odd since many native citizens and people of all races have “bad” genes.) Today, such sentiments are expressed in politically incorrect circles of the Right. In polite company on the Left, however, related eugenic sentiments are permitted, if not desirable, given the misplaced concerns about population (a la Thomas Malthus) and certain environmental issues (a la contemporary doomsayer Paul Ehrlich). From there, the prescriptions range from the personal (the desire to control one’s own life by avoiding or promoting certain outcomes) to the corporate (the desire to use government policy to regulate the lives of others).
How does eugenics play out today? Let's start with abortion:
- As a matter of state policy, China’s "one-child policy" has led to infanticide, an estimated 20 million abortions per year and a 6:5 boy-girl ratio.
- As a matter of personal, religious, and cultural preferences, gender-biased abortion is practiced in India, resulting in eight percent more boys than girls. (The ratio varies within Indian states. The most egregious is a 5:4 boy-girl ratio in Punjab). The Indian government is trying to reverse these trends, in part by subsidizing the birth of girls in a culture that often devalues women.
- Abortion also is practiced on babies in utero when they have less desirable characteristics. For example, an estimated 30 percent of babies with Down Syndrome are aborted in the United States. In cultures as diverse as Taiwan and Paris, that figure is as high as 80 percent.
Beyond abortion, “medical eugenics” in utero and in laboratory test tubes are increasingly prevalent — that is, the manipulation of embryos to produce more desirable, "designer" babies.
In March, Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, caused an uproar with some provocative questions. He asked, for example, if a predisposition toward homosexuality is eventually determined to have a genetic component, should parents seek to have that gene altered?
Given that he views homosexual conduct as a sin, Dr. Mohler's conclusion was not surprising: "If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin."
In his essay, it was left unsaid how Mohler would handle a biological disposition toward alcoholism, pornography or anger. Presumably, the same conclusion applies.
Obviously, such questions open more than one can of worms: Is eugenics appropriate with respect to disease, but not traits? Certain diseases? Certain traits? (A related question is the debate in the deaf community whether the children of the deaf should be treated for deafness.)
Mohler would advocate genetic manipulation under those conditions (e.g., perhaps through a hormone patch during pregnancy) but he would not advocate abortion. For those who are not so opposed to abortion, Mohler continues by asking how often parents would, in practice, seek to have such a gene altered. "How many parents — even among those who consider themselves most liberal — would choose a gay child? How many parents, armed with this diagnosis, would use the patch and change the orientation?"
A biological cause for homosexual orientation would allow for additional normalization of homosexuality because it would be seen as more "natural." Ironically, any biological link, when combined with modern technology and a eugenic reflex, could inspire efforts to eliminate the trait or change a baby’s undesired sexual orientation through treatment.
More broadly, the implications of a eugenics reflex influence an array of issues within sexual and reproductive ethics (e.g., birth control), ethics within scientific research (e.g., cloning and some forms of stem-cell research), and most broadly, in speaking to a "culture" of death or life (e.g., the allure of various forms of euthanasia).
In each case, the same tension is at work. That is, when is modern technology a useful way to improve life in an ethical manner? And when is it overly influenced by a eugenics reflex — with its desire to manipulate life in a god-like manner through an overarching faith in the power of science?