Eugenics, a prejudicial pseudoscience with roots in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gained popularity and impacted American state
and federal laws in the 1920s.
Describe the goals and consequences of the eugenics movement
The eugenics movement,
which had its roots in European pseudoscience, played a major role in debates
on U.S. immigration policy,
particularly with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. Many believed immigrants were
inferior and should be prevented from marrying and breeding.
State laws were written in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to prohibit marriage and force sterilization
of the mentally ill in order to prevent the "passing on" of mental
illness to the next generation.
Both class and race factored in to eugenic definitions of "fit" and "unfit." By using
intelligence testing, American eugenicists asserted that social mobility was
indicative of one's genetic fitness.
American eugenicists provided the
so-called scientific proof used to justify racial oppression in the United States and
Europe. Nazi administrators on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg after World
War II justified more than 450,000 mass sterilizations by
citing American eugenics programs as their inspiration.
(1866–1944) A prominent American eugenicist and biologist. He was one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement, which was directly involved in the sterilization of around 60,000 "unfit" Americans and strongly influenced the Holocaust in Europe.
(1822–1911) A British sociologist and anthropologist who coined the term "eugenics" and promoted the idea of the survival of the fittest in humans through selective breeding.
was a field sociological and anthropological study that became popular in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a method of preserving and improving the
population through cultivation of dominant gene groups. Rather than considered scientific
genetics, however, eugenics is now generally associated with racist and nativist elements who desired so-called "scientific"
evidence for prejudicial beliefs and government policies. The eugenics movement
in the United States was used to justify laws enabling forced sterilizations of
the mentally ill and prohibiting marriages and child bearing by immigrants,
while in Europe, eugenics theories were used by the Nazi regime in Germany to justify
thousands of sterilizations and, later, widespread murder.
Origins and Proliferation
its time, eugenics was touted as scientific and progressive, the natural
application of knowledge about breeding to the arena of human life. Researchers
interested in familial mental disorders conducted studies to document the
heritability of illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Rather
than true science, though, eugenics was merely an ill-considered social
philosophy aimed at improving the quality of the human population by increasing
reproduction between those with genes considered desirable—Nordic, Germanic, and Anglo-Saxon peoples—and limiting procreation by those whose genetic stock
was seen as less favorable or unlikely to improve the human gene pool. The
method considered most viable in attaining this goal was the prevention of
marriage and breeding among targeted groups and individuals, but over time, the
far more extreme action of sterilization became acceptable.
these ideas existed for centuries, the modern eugenics movement can be traced
to the United Kingdom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The theory of evolution made famous by Charles Darwin was used by English sociologist and
anthropologist Francis Galton, a half cousin of Darwin, to promote the idea of
a human survival of the fittest that could be enacted through selective
breeding. He coined the term "eugenics" in 1883, and in 1909, wrote the foreword to
the first volume of the Eugenics Review,
the journal of the Eugenics Education Society, which named him as its honorary president.
and supporters began organizing and holding formal discussions and conferences
and publishing papers that proliferated through Europe and America. Three
International Eugenics Congresses were held between 1912 and 1932, the first
taking place in London. Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, presided over the
meeting of about 400 delegates from numerous countries—including British luminaries
such as the Chief Justice Lord Balfour, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston
Churchill. The meeting served as an indication of the growing popularity of the eugenics movement.
American eugenics movement was rooted in the biological determinist ideas of Galton
and included those who believed in the genetic superiority of specific Caucasian
groups, supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation laws, and supported
the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled, and "immoral."
class and race factored into eugenic definitions of "fit" and
"unfit." Using intelligence testing, American eugenicists asserted
that social mobility was indicative of one's genetic fitness. This reaffirmed
the existing class and racial hierarchies and explained why the upper to middle
class was predominately white, with middle to upper class status being a marker
of "superior strains." Eugenicists believed poverty to be a
characteristic of genetic inferiority, which meant that that those deemed
"unfit" were predominately of the lower classes. Because poverty was
associated with prostitution and "mental idiocy,"
women of the lower classes were the first to be deemed "unfit" and
"promiscuous." These women, who were primarily immigrants or women of
color, were discouraged from bearing children, and were encouraged to use birth
American eugenics research was funded by distinguished philanthropists and carried out at prestigious
universities, trickling down to classrooms where it was presented as a serious
science. In 1906, J.H. Kellogg provided funding to help found the Race
Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Eugenics Record Office
(ERO) was founded in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1911 by the renowned biologist
Charles B. Davenport, using money from both the Harriman railroad fortune and
the Carnegie Institution.
were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America to prohibit
marriage and to force sterilization of the mentally ill in order to prevent the
"passing on" of mental illness to the next generation. The first
state to introduce a compulsory sterilization bill was Michigan in 1897, but
the proposed law failed to garner enough votes by legislators to be adopted.
Eight years later, Pennsylvania's state legislators passed a sterilization bill
that was vetoed by the governor. Indiana became the first state
to enact sterilization legislation in 1907, followed closely by Washington and
California in 1909.
and women were compulsorily sterilized for different reasons. Men were
sterilized to treat their aggression and to eliminate their criminal behavior,
while women were sterilized to control the results of their sexuality. Because women bore children, eugenicists held women more accountable than men for the
reproduction of the less "desirable" members of society. Eugenicists,
therefore, targeted mostly women in their efforts to regulate the birth rate,
to "protect" white racial health, and to weed out the
"defectives" of society.
rates across the country were relatively low, California being the exception,
until the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell that legitimized the forced
sterilization of patients at a Virginia home for the mentally retarded. These
statutes were not abolished until the mid-twentieth century, with approximately 60,000
Americans legally sterilized.
to the sterilization ruling in the Supreme Court, eugenicists had already played
an important role in government policy by serving as expert advisers on the
threat of "inferior stock" from eastern and southern Europe during the
Congressional debate over immigration in the early 1920s. This led to passage
of the federal Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of immigrants
from abroad to 15 percent from previous years.
are also direct links between progressive American eugenicists such as Harry H.
Laughlin and racial oppression in Europe. Laughlin wrote the Virginia model
statute that was the basis for the Nazi Ernst Rudin's Law for the Prevention of
Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Before the realization of death camps in World
War II, the idea that eugenics would lead to genocide was not taken seriously
by the average American. When Nazi administrators went on trial for war crimes
in Nuremberg after the war, however, they justified more than 450,000 mass
sterilizations in less than a decade by citing U.S. eugenics programs
and policies as their inspiration. These sterilizations were the precursor to
the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt at genocide against Jews and other ethnic
groups they deemed unfavorable to the human gene pool.