Eugenics is the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. It aims to reduce human suffering by “breeding out” disease, disabilities and so-called undesirable characteristics from the human population. Early supporters of eugenics believed people inherited mental illness, criminal tendencies and even poverty, and that these conditions could be bred out of the gene pool.
Historically, eugenics encouraged people of so-called healthy, “superior” stock to reproduce and discouraged reproduction of the physically or mentally challenged—or anyone who fell outside the social norm. Eugenics was popular in America during much of the first half of the twentieth century, yet it earned its negative association mainly from Adolf Hitler and his obsessive attempts to create an advanced Aryan race.
Modern eugenics, more often called human genetic engineering, has come a long way—scientifically and ethically—and offers hope for treating many devastating genetic illnesses. Even so, it remains controversial.
Eugenics literally means “good creation.” The ancient Greek philosopher Plato may have been the first person to promote the idea, although the term “eugenics” didn’t come on the scene until British scholar Sir Francis Galton coined it in 1883 in his book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development.
In one of Plato’s best-known literary works, The Republic, he wrote about creating a superior society by procreating high-class people together and discouraging coupling between the lower classes. He also suggested a variety of mating rules to help create an optimal society.
For instance, men should only have relations with a woman when arranged by their ruler, and incestuous relationships between parents and children were forbidden—but not between brother and sister. While Plato’s ideas may be considered a form of ancient eugenics, he received little credit from Galton.
Eugenics in America
In the late 19th century, Galton—whose cousin was Charles Darwin—hoped to better humankind through the propagation of the British elite. His plan never really took hold in his own country, but in America it was more widely embraced.
Eugenics made its first official appearance in American history through marriage laws. In 1896, Connecticut made it illegal for people with epilepsy or who were “feeble-minded” to marry. In 1903, the American Breeder’s Association was created to study eugenics.
John Harvey Kellogg, of Kellogg’s cereal fame, organized the Race Betterment Foundation in 1911 and established a “pedigree registry.” The foundation hosted national conferences on eugenics in 1914, 1915 and 1928.
As the concept of eugenics took hold, prominent citizens, scientists and socialists championed the cause and established the Eugenics Record Office. The office tracked families and their genetic traits, claiming most people considered unfit were immigrants, minorities or poor.
The Eugenics Record Office also maintained there was clear evidence that supposed negative family traits were caused by bad genes, not racism, economics or the social views of the time.
Eugenics in America took a dark turn in the early 20th century, led by California. From 1909 to 1979, around 20,000 sterilizations occurred in California state mental institutions under the guise of protecting society from the offspring of people with mental illness.
Many sterilizations were forced and performed on minorities. Thirty-three states would eventually allow involuntary sterilization on whomever lawmakers deemed unworthy to procreate.
In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that forced sterilization of the handicapped does not violate the U.S. Constitution. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “…three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In 1942, the ruling was overturned, but not before thousands of people underwent the procedure.
In the 1930s, the acting governor of Puerto Rico, Rafael Menendez Ramos, implemented sterilization programs for Puerto Rican women. Ramos claimed the action was needed to battle rampant poverty and economic strife; however, it may have also been a way to prevent the so-called superior Aryan gene pool from becoming tainted with Latino blood.
According to a 1976 Government Accountability Office investigation, between 25 and 50 percent of Native Americans were sterilized between 1970 and 1976. It’s thought some sterilizations happened without consent during other surgical procedures such as an appendectomy.
In some cases, health care for living children was denied unless their mothers agreed to sterilization.
Adolf Hitler and Eugenics
As horrific as forced sterilization in America was, nothing compared to Adolf Hitler’s eugenic experiments before and during World War II. And Hitler didn’t come up with the concept of a superior Aryan race all on his own. In fact, he referred to American eugenics in his 1934 book, Mein Kampf.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler declared non-Aryan races such as Jews and Romani as inferior. He believed Germans should do everything possible, including genocide, to make sure their gene pool stayed pure. And in 1933, the Nazis created the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, which resulted in thousands of forced sterilizations.
By 1940, Hitler’s master-race mania took a terrible turn as hundreds of thousands of Germans with mental or physical disabilities were killed by gas or lethal injection.
During World War II, concentration camp prisoners endured horrific medical tests under the guise of helping Hitler create the perfect race. Josef Mengele, an SS doctor at Auschwitz, oversaw many experiments on both adult and child twins.
He used chemical eyedrops to try and create blue eyes, injected prisoners with devastating diseases and performed surgery without anesthesia. Many of his “patients” died or suffered permanent disability, and his gruesome experiments earned him the nickname “Angel of Death.”
In all, it’s estimated eleven million people died during the Holocaust, most of them because they didn’t fit Hitler’s definition of a superior race.
Thanks to the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis, eugenics lost momentum in after World War II, although forced sterilizations still happened. But as medical technology advanced, a new form of eugenics came on the scene.
Modern eugenics, better known as human genetic engineering, changes or removes genes to prevent disease, cure disease or improve your body in some significant way. The potential health benefits of human gene therapy are impressive since many devastating or life-threatening illnesses could be cured.
But modern genetic engineering also comes with a potential cost: As technology advances, people could routinely weed-out what they consider undesirable traits in their offspring. Genetic testing already allows parents to identify some diseases in their child in utero, which may cause them to terminate the pregnancy.
This is controversial, since what exactly constitutes “negative traits” is open to interpretation, and many people feel that all humans have the right to be born regardless of disease, or that the laws of nature shouldn’t be tampered with.
Much of America’s historical eugenics efforts such as forced sterilizations have gone unpunished, although some states offered reparations to victims or their survivors. For the most part, though, it’s a largely unknown stain on America’s history. And no amount of money can ever repair the devastation of Hitler’s eugenics programs.
As scientists embark on a new eugenics frontier, past failings can serve as a warning to approach modern genetic research with care and compassion.
Controlling Heredity: American Breeder’s Association. University of Missouri.
Forced Sterilization of Native Americans: Late Twentieth Century Physician Cooperation with National Eugenic Policies. The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.
Greek Theories on Eugenics. Journal of Medical Ethics.
Josef Mengele. Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Latina Women: Forced Sterilization. University of Michigan.
Modern Eugenics: Building a Better Person? Helix.
Nazi Medical Experiments. Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Plato. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States. PBS.