During the first half of the twentieth century, the movement known as eugenics profoundly influenced children and reproduction in most Western societies. The term eugenics was first popularized by Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton, who defined it as the use of science to improve human heredity. But that definition left many key questions unresolved: What is an improvement? What is heredity? How can science improve heredity? Who has the authority to answer these questions?

Self-proclaimed eugenics experts, drawn largely from middle-class professional and managerial backgrounds, formed a network of formal institutions, such as the American Eugenics Society and the British Eugenics Education Society, which promulgated a set of orthodox answers to these questions. These groups enjoyed political success dis-proportionate to their relatively small numbers, but they did not monopolize the meaning of eugenics. Public discourse included a variety of conflicting alternative answers to each of these questions, with differing implications for children.

What Is an Improvement?

Eugenicists' diagnoses of good and bad human traits were molded by their particular cultures' values, including their racial, religious, gender, and class prejudices. Eugenicists in the United States focused on racial and ethnic distinctions more than did British eugenicists, who tended to see class as more important than race, while French eugenicists instead emphasized nationality. Eugenic leaders from elite or managerial backgrounds depicted poverty as an inherited disease, while socialist eugenicists portrayed greed and capitalism as the pathologies. Eugenic intellectual leaders emphasized what they called the "menace of the feebleminded," but in mass culture eugenic popularizers often ranked an attractive body ahead of a brilliant mind. Although the subjective, culturally derived nature of these diagnoses is obvious in retrospect, at the time each was presented as the objectively proven verdict of science.

What Is Heredity?

Early-twentieth-century scientific understanding of heredity was transformed by rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's research on the patterns of inheritance of specific traits, and by August Weismann's demonstrations that heredity is unaffected by environment. However, many eugenicists campaigned against conditions from infectious diseases to malnutrition whose causes science now attributed to environment, not genetics. This expansive version of eugenics did not result from ignorance of science, but from a different set of concerns. In this view, calling something hereditary meant that you got it from your parents, regardless of whether you got it via genes or germs, precepts or probate. The 1922 U.S. Public Health Service film The Science of Life defined a man's heredity as "what he receives from his ancestors." What made a trait hereditary was the parents' moral responsibility for causing it, rather than the technical mechanism of its transmission. On this view, eugenics meant not simply having good genes, but being a good parent.

How Can Science Improve Heredity?

Eugenicists often categorized their methods as either positive–increasing the reproduction of those judged fit–or negative–decreasing the fertility of those judged unfit. Positive measures ranged from proposed government stipends for parents of large healthy families, to Better Baby and Fitter Family contests modeled on rural livestock shows. Negative measures included forced sterilization, ethnic restrictions on immigration, and euthanasia. In France and Latin America eugenicists generally emphasized positive measures, while the United States and Germany led in negative measures.

However, positive and negative were meant as simply arithmetic not evaluative distinctions. Negative measures often relied on coercion, but so did some pronatalist methods. In addition, negative techniques from BIRTH CONTROL to euthanasia often were not imposed by the government, but chosen by families, sometimes even when they violated the law. Furthermore, most eugenicists employed a mix of positive and negative methods. Both positive and negative methods shared the same goals, based on shared definitions of good and bad heredity.

Eugenics and Children

Different versions of eugenics affected children in different ways. Eugenic efforts to control who had children did not explicitly prescribe how to raise them. But the eugenic assumption that heredity determined a person's essential characteristics could undercut support for efforts to improve children's environment through such means as education or health care. Furthermore, many eugenicists such as Charles Davenport endorsed Social Darwinist and neo-Malthusian assertions that disease in general, and INFANT MORTALITY in particular, were valuable means of natural selection. On this view, death was nature's method for eliminating children with inheritable defects. For example, from 1915 to 1918, a prominent Chicago surgeon, Dr. Harry Haiselden, refused to treat and sometimes actively hastened the deaths of infants he diagnosed as eugenically unfit. His practice won widespread public support.

On the other hand, eugenics was also frequently invoked to support improved medical treatment, education, and welfare programs for children. The American Association for the Study and Prevention of Infant Mortality had a formal section on eugenics, while America's first major eugenic organization, the Race Betterment Foundation, promoted a broad range of preventive health measures for children, from exercise to clean milk. Eugenicists who supported social services for children argued that infant mortality was insufficiently selective–too random, or too likely to kill children with valued traits (such as intelligence). They also tended to define eugenics as good parenting, not limited to good genes. Such views were especially appealing to maternalist social reformers, who believed that power for women would make society more nurturing, and to advocates of scientific motherhood, who sought to professionalize homemaking. These versions of eugenics attempted to help all children, but they still depended on distinguishing between good and bad parents.

Support for programs labeled as eugenic declined in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States, in reaction to the Nazi use of eugenics to promote genocide, and in response to growing scientific understanding of the complexity of genetics. To protect genetic medicine from the prejudiced values of past eugenics, many post—World War II scholars insisted that doctors should treat only objectively defined diseases. However, medicine has always required some evaluative judgments to distinguish good health from disease. Well-intentioned efforts to keep medicine value-free actually replicated past eugenicists' faith in the objectivity of their own diagnoses. Such efforts could not succeed in eliminating the need for value judgments in medicine, but they could obscure and delegitimate the political and ethical analyses necessary if a culture is to make such value judgments wisely.

See also: Family Patterns; Fertility Rates; Pediatrics.


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