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A Brief History of the American Eugenics Movement

Neha B Deshpande Mar 18, 2020
The 'American Eugenics Movement' is remembered as a dark time in the late 19th and early 20th century, during which, there was violation of human rights. The movement focused on the breeding of selective human beings to produce a better class of the human race of superior quality.
Eugenics, as discussed, evidently means the control of some men over the marriage and unmarriage of others; and probably means the control of the few over the marriage and unmarriage of the many.
― G.K. Chesterton
Human society is filled with different kinds of people, and every society has certain unfortunate people who are born weak or impaired, either mentally or physically, as compared to others. Many of them are shunned by society, and even families sometimes refuse to accept their responsibility towards them.
Every society wants its members to be healthy, intelligent, and contribute to the betterment of the society. Based on the idea that society should have more of productive and healthy people, and lesser of feeble-minded and socially unfit people, the Eugenics Movement was born.
'Eugenics' means improvement in the quality of the human race through selective breeding. It encouraged superior people to have more children, and those who were genetically inferior to have less or no kids at all. Thus, it implied that poor, handicapped, and mentally unstable people should not give birth to off-springs.

History of the Eugenics Movement in America

Foundation of the Movement

✦ Sir Francis Galton, a British sociologist, and half-cousin of Charles Darwin, first developed this idea. He was of the opinion that, the characteristics developed by a human being are hereditary in nature. Hence, to give the human race the best of the humans with superior qualities, it is better only for them to procreate.
In 1883, he coined the word 'eugenics', which meant 'well-born'. Unfit people will give birth to unfit humans, which will act as a burden for the others. Many people supported this idea, and many big names were a part of this movement too.
✦ Thus, they focused on 'selective breeding', which aimed at eradicating those who were mentally unstable and had physical disabilities. This idea was propagandized during the 19th century, against the backdrop of war situations. The movement gained momentum during the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, this idea was honored and supported by many.

Supporters of the Movement in American History

✦ Charles Davenport was one staunch supporter of the Eugenics Movement in America, and set up his own research center for his study of 'eugenics'. Other supporters included prominent names such as Alexander Graham Bell, David Starr Jordan, and Karl Pearson.
In fact, Alexander Graham Bell, who taught deaf students, was of the opinion that, a deaf person should not marry another deaf person, since it increases the chances of the off-spring being born deaf.

Propaganda of the Movement in American History

✦ The United States was more keen on the non-reproduction of the 'feeble-minded'. Indiana was the first state to adopt compulsory sterilization. Many other states were quick to support the movement, and as much as 30 states adopted it legally. In the mid-1960s, California had a major role in getting its female prisoners forcibly sterilized.
✦ Competitions such as 'Better Babies Contents', as a part of this movement, were organized during the 1920s, with an aim of physical development and proper nourishment of the child. According to the advocates of this movement, the focus was to create good-quality humans for the benefit of the mankind.
✦ Hitler had expressed in his book 'Mein Kampf', his advocacy of eugenics, and praised its implementation in America by many states.

Implementation Methods

✦ According to the scientists of those times, 'sterilization' was one of the most humane ways to carry out selective breeding. Many states in the US adopted 'forced sterilization', and the obvious targets were mentally and physically unfit people. Such people were deemed to be potential parents of children of inferior genetics.
✦ Other Methods: Marriage Restrictions, Birth Control, Financial Incentives to those who agreed to sterilization, etc.. In other cases, such as the Nazis, there were other methods to carry out eugenics, such as forced abortion, genocide, euthanasia, etc.

The Infamous Case of 'Carrie Buck'

Carrie Buck of Virginia State was a plaintiff of the Buck v. Bell case, and was ordered by the court to be obligatorily sterilized. It was argued that, she was feeble-minded and sexually promiscuous, and her off-spring might carry these negative traits. She had already given birth to a daughter at the age of 17.
However, some state that she was raped by her foster parents' nephew, which had resulted into her pregnancy. Sadly, many testified against her as to be socially unfit to have a child, and hence was sterilized. Many facts were revealed later, and it was alleged that those involved in the case actually distorted the facts which turned out to be against her.

What Ended the Eugenics Movement in America

✦ The movement was engulfed with many ethical issues and difference of opinions. Whether society should exercise any right and interfere in nature, as to how babies are born and to whom, was an unanswerable question which raised many ethical problems.
Nature does not distinguish between humans, hence, giving the right to reproduce to a handful few who are deemed to be superior than the others is indeed injustice to the others.
Physical disability is not the personal fault of any particular individual, hence, whether you should be choosy in determining what kind of babies are to be born was a question again. Some people criticized the idea, considering these practices as inhumane. Also, the reliability of data regarding the defects of the person must be considered.
✦ Sadly, the movement has also been held responsible for sowing the seeds of Nazism. Hitler believed that the 'Aryan' race was of superior quality, and that the Jews needed to be eliminated. That was one of the important reasons why this movement received a bad name. It was due to the horrific results of Nazism that the idea of eugenics died.
✦ Most of the time, in developing countries, poor and rural people become a victim of eugenics. They are sterilized, sometimes without their knowledge, and offered poor medical attention.
We cannot say that eugenics has been completely erased out of the world. There are still many countries who target the poor and the minorities, and carry out forced sterilization. The movement was subject to abuse, and hence, could not work successfully for the benefit of mankind, in the real sense.