Eugenics is a scheme for improving the human race by controlling reproduction. The practice of eugenics reached its height in the period between the latenineteenth century and World War II, when German Nazis carried eugenic principles to the extremes of mass sterilization and genocide. Different forms of eugenics have been practiced around the world and are currently in effect in the People's Republic of China, where reproduction is strictly limited. With the advent of medical research such as the Human Genome Project, society is still trying to resolve the ethical issues raised by eugenic theories.
The general concept of eugenics is first mentioned in Greek records dating back to 368 BC. Plato and Aristotle both refer to the city state's need for healthy citizens to form an elite ruling class and army. In this earliest blueprint for eugenics, men and women were encouraged to reproduce when they were at the peak of their physical and mental powers, in order to conceive the healthiest and most intelligent children. This underlying principle of striving for an ideal society through selective breeding is one that has motivated eugenicists throughout history.
The term eugenics, which from its Greek roots means "good in birth," was coined by Francis Galton in 1883. A wealthy cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton believed society's sympathy for the weak prevented proper evolution. The Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century brought with it a fascination with measurement and statistics. In this climate, Darwin proposed his theory ofthe survival of the fittest, and Galton advocated a form of selection that restricted undesirable people from reproducing. Eugenicists and Social Darwinists believed in the idea of superiority of one "race" over another. Invariably, proponents of eugenics saw their own class and race as most deserving of propagation.
The theory of eugenics was very popular with intellectuals and academics suchas H.G. Wells, the young Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Alexander Graham Bell, John Maynard Keynes, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge.
Galton believed intelligence and other admired traits were inherited apart from environmental influence. With a determination to maximize brilliance and prevent "feeblemindedness," Galton encouraged "good" marriages that would produce highly intelligent males and ultimately assure the stock of the next generation.
Galton's presentation of eugenics came on the heels of Charles Darwin's 1859book, The Origin of Species. Evolutionary theory took precedence as the human race was divided into the "fit" and "unfit," and eugenics became thescientific community's calling as it promoted ways in which, according to Galton, "social control may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations whether physically or mentally." Darwin quoted Galton repeatedly inhis next book, The Descent of Man. Galton and Darwin agreed that intelligence, courage, and good and bad moods were influenced by family upbringing, while features such as mental illness tended to be inherited.
Social Darwinists saw medical care as giving the "weak" an increased abilityto survive, instead of allowing nature to take its course and eliminate defective people. In Germany, there was a growing fear that medical intervention and welfare policies were enabling weak and impoverished citizens to survive and sap the country's resources. German Social Darwinist Alfred Ploetz introduced the term "racial hygiene" and criticized those who helped the weak survive. Ploetz popularized the argument that racial hygiene benefited all people.
Support for eugenics and racial hygiene increased with the encouragement of Margaret Sanger in the United States. As a leader in the movement for global birth control, Sanger declared, "More children from the fit, less from the unfit-that is the chief issue of birth control," a theory that was readily accepted by the community during this period. Eugenicists began to influence public concern that society was afflicted by the "unfit," and they demanded government action. By 1912, 34 states had passed laws that denied the insane the right to marry, nine states restricted marriage of epileptics, and 15 banned mentally retarded people from marrying one other. Legislatures continued to bemotivated by economic and social considerations and argued that "feebleminded" citizens should not be given the chance to pass undesirable traits on to their children.
Sterilization laws were most popular in the Atlantic region, the Midwest, andCalifornia, with California carrying out, by 1933, more eugenic sterilizations than the rest of the United States combined. In Canada, sterilization efforts were most popular in British Columbia and Alberta. The North American laws focused on the inmates of state institutions for the mentally handicapped and mentally ill. Since wealthier families could afford private care for theirrelatives with mental handicaps and mental illness, the laws tended to discriminate against the poor. Figures gathered from California records show thatbased on their representation in the state's population, African Americans and foreign immigrants were subjected to sterilization at double the rate of other Californians. However, most states did not enforce sterilization laws, and more than a third of American states never passed such laws.
Despite the popularity of eugenic theories, there were opponents, including another of Darwin's cousins, Josiah Wedgewood, who fought to prevent eugenicslaws from being passed before the first world war. Great Britain passed the Mental Deficiency Act in 1913, which authorized eugenic sterilization, over the objections of civil libertarians. Roman Catholics opposed sterilization onreligious grounds, and in North America, Catholics had political grounds as well, as many immigrants were Catholic.
In the United States, "mentally defective" patients were institutionalized inincreasing numbers, overcrowding mental asylums. As a result, a more radicalapproach to eliminating the "unfit" came to fruition. Sterilization was supported widely in the United States and in European countries such as Great Britain and Germany. Pennsylvania was the first state to enact a coercive sterilization statute in 1907. Twenty-four states passed laws that encouraged sterilization of those who were mentally retarded, insane, or had criminal records. This type of involuntary sterilization led to the infamous 1927 Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell, which charged that social prejudice was the primarymotive behind the decision to perform a coerced surgical procedure on CarrieBuck, a "feebleminded" young woman from an indigent family in Virginia. Afterargument that Buck was denied her due process as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, the court ruled that Buck's sterilization was legal. Buck's attorney appealed, which ultimately led to the Supreme Court's ruling against Buck. This decision, based on eugenic theory, was not reversed for four decades.
The eugenics movement reached its climax in the early twentieth century, withAmerican biologist Charles Davenport proposing that certain "racial stock" was superior in such areas as intelligence, hard work and cleanliness. Davenport's theories of human evolution were derived from the rediscovered genetic experiments of the Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, who observed the transmissionof dominant and recessive traits by breeding peas. For the eugenics movement, Mendel's research answered many mysteries of human heredity. The movement continued to grow with the founding of several societies, including the Society for Racial Hygiene by Ploetz in 1905, the Eugenic Society of Great Britainin 1908, and in 1923 the American Eugenics Society, which quickly formed 29 chapters across the country. Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act was emblematic of the racial component of eugenics. In the early twentieth century, eugenic policies supported many existing racial hierarchies.
Promoting better breeding while preventing poor breeding became the eugenicsmovement creed. Citizens could participate by competing in "fitter family" and "better baby" competitions at county fairs and exhibitions throughout the United States. "Fit families" were measured on an elusive scale which nevertheless included an IQ test, and a Wasserman test for syphilis.
World War I set many fears in motion, and the Immigration Act of 1924 established strict quotas limiting immigrants from countries with "inferior" stock into the United States. The worldwide economic depression of 1929 intensifiedpressure for forced sterilization. Adolf Hitler began to take notice of America's interest in eugenics. With Germany in economic turmoil after the war, Hitler exploited the needy population and gained control with his first commandto change the country's sterilization law from voluntary to mandatory. From1934 to 1937, 400,000 sterilizations took place in Germany, compared to 30,000 sterilized on eugenic grounds in the United States by 1939. Hitler began aeuthanasia program in 1939 by secretly authorizing doctors to grant mercifuldeaths to the incurably ill. This led to the mercy killing of more than 70,000 patients in less than three years.
Proponents of eugenics often play on nationalist fears of a diluted racial stock, combined with the idealism of building a better society. Leading biologists and physicians in Germany welcomed Hitler's idea of placing race at the center of building a new state, which resulted in the concentration camps andgenetic research on humans that define the Holocaust. Historians trace racialand other nationalist pressures to mass killings in countries such as Armenia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Many in the postwar scientific community felt the cooperation of German physicians and scientists with the Nazi regime compromised the practice of scienceand medicine. There was additional academic fallout in the fields of anthropology and biology, since some in the academic world were perceived as helpingto legitimize genocide. In the words of medical ethicist Daniel Wikler, "Eugenics is a valuable case study which demonstrates how the prestige of sciencecan be used to disguise the moral premises and motives for a social movement, and how class, racial, and other biases can exert powerful and damaging influence over such a movement while remaining virtually invisible to its advocates."
Many countries have practiced less extreme forms of eugenics. In the era between the 1930s and the 1970s, Sweden sterilized some 60,000 people, mostly women, in an effort to limit the number of children born with inherited diseases. In the early twentieth century, demands for sterilization of "unfit" citizens were carried out in the United States, Canada, Britain and Scandinavia, with similar efforts in other parts of Europe, and in some parts of Latin America and Asia. Europe and the United States hosted many institutes for the study of eugenics or "race biology," and these theories were widely publicized inbooks, lectures and articles.
The experience of the province of Alberta, Canada, illustrates the shift in public opinion regarding forced sterilization. Between 1929 and 1972, Albertasterilized more than 2800 institutionalized men, women and children. After asurvivor won a $1 million lawsuit in 1996, the 700 remaining survivors joineda $700 million class action lawsuit. When the Alberta legislature introduceda bill that would have stripped constitutional protections from the survivors, Canadians were outraged and the province was forced to back down. However,the Alberta legislature limited the compensation to a maximum of $150,000 per victim.
Social progressives saw eugenics as a tool for social improvement and reform,while conservatives saw eugenics as a tool for limiting the lower income groups and the cost of caring for them. There was some overlapping of these political agendas. In the British and Scandinavian eugenics movements, race played a very minor role. However, in the United States and Canada, many were alarmed at the waves of immigrants moving in from eastern and southern Europe. The North American Anglo-Saxon majority viewed other groups with great suspicion and blamed them for many social problems such as crime, prostitution and poverty.
During the twentieth century heyday of eugenic theory, there were two prominent branches of thought. The branch of positive eugenics held that breeding and heredity could be benevolently manipulated to bring about superior people.Negative eugenicists sought to improve the human race by restricting the reproduction of "inferior" people, or by eliminating them altogether.
As the world began to realize the actual steps Hitler had taken to create his"super-race," opposition to the Nazis and eugenics surfaced. Sterilization laws in the United States dwindled in the 1940s with the practice almost nonexistent by the 1950s, when IQ tests also came under intense scrutiny. The termeugenics fell into disfavor, with a shift in the scientific community towardbehaviorism and true genetics. The aftermath of World War II fostered an international dialog on research and human rights, with the United Nations adopting the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Although the Nazi atrocities helped to discredit eugenics in the West, the 1949 Communist takeover of China brought a new interest in methods of population control. While the Chinese Communist Party was quick to denounce eugenic theory as a tool of imperialism, communist theory did favor some eugenic principles. For example, a citizen is considered worthy in terms of what he or shecan contribute to society. A handicapped or "defective" person might be seenas having no worth under this system of values. In 1978, the People's Republic of China adopted economic reforms and a mandatory one-child policy. In a redoubled effort to control the "quality" as well as the quantity of newborns,the P.R.C. introduced a "Eugenics Law" in 1995 which was later renamed the Maternal and Infant Health Law. The purpose was to prevent "inferior" births, but the definitions of handicaps and "defects" were vague. Enforcement came not from party leaders but from local doctors who decided who was "fit" to reproduce. Some scholars note similarities between China's late twentieth centurypopulation control policies and the earlier twentieth century racial hygienemovements in Europe. Singapore is the only other country actively pursuing principles of eugenics.
Genetic counseling centers became widespread between the 1950s and 1980s in several countries as a way to detect a pattern of disease among families. In the late 1960s, amniocentesis was developed as a technique to discover irregularities in the fetus. This test became critical after 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade allowed women to choose abortion of a fetus with defects discovered by amniocentesis. Other genetic tests of the late twentieth century include screenings for sickle-cell anemia in the African American community. Between 1969 and 1973, many states organized compulsory sickle cell testing. People who carried the sickle cell trait, who were entirelyhealthy, faced problems in obtaining employment, life insurance, and marriagelicensing. In 1976 the National Genetic Disease Act provided research, screening, counseling, and education for people diagnosed with Cooley's anemia, Tay-Sachs disease, cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, and muscular dystrophy. While the term eugenics remains to reflect negatively on the modern science of genetics, a more positive concept of prevention of disease is taking itsplace. Gene sequences and gene markers are now available to detect cancer, ischemic heart disease, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension, with treatment for some of these conditions available through gene therapy. Animal models arebeing used in gene manipulation research in the hope that animals will be able to supply donor organs for human transplantation.
Ethicists question whether some eugenics debates are being replayed as advanced medical technology poses new challenges. Most would see voluntary birth control as an expression of individual free will, but what happens when mothersreceiving public assistance are pressured to use injected or implanted formsof birth control? Could clinical genetics be considered a more modern form of eugenics? In the eyes of some disability groups, selective abortion of fetuses with certain genetic conditions encourages discrimination toward people with inherited diseases and is morally unacceptable. Some feminist groups seethe option of selective abortion as empowering, not restricting, because it offers additional choices to women who are carrying fetuses with diseases suchas Down's syndrome and neural tube defect.
Technology available to fetuses in the uterus has now advanced to the point where medical decisions can be made when the egg is fertilized. When a coupleuses in vitro fertilization (IVF), a highly technical process for uniting a human egg and sperm in the laboratory, there are many new ethical questions. The cells of the embryo can be tested for such diseases as cystic fibrosis andDuchenne muscular dystrophy, using a technique called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PID). At this point in the procedure, the doctors and prospective parents may choose which embryo to implant in the woman's uterus. Does theadvanced technology change the basic choice of who will be born? Bioethicistssometimes use the term "consumer eugenics" to consider the implications of such technology. Proponents and opponents both acknowledge that PID opens thedoor for the human gene pool to be influenced by social factors.
The Human Genome Project, an international attempt to organize and map all human genes, prompted the United Nations to draft a Declaration on the Protection of the Human Genome. Genetic markers and files can now be easily acquiredby examining the DNA of any individual, even before the person is born. Before the sheep, Dolly, was cloned in Britain, many countries had already draftedlaws on the splitting of embryos. While some countries have passed laws to forbid human cloning, researchers are experimenting with ways to use cloning technology to treat disease. As the possibilities widen, so does the debate onthe degree to which people should influence reproductive and other genetic decisions.
Eugenic considerations can also spill over into commercial debates, as they have in Great Britain. British life insurance companies require applicants tostate whether they have ever undergone genetic testing for cancer, heart disease or premature dementia. If a person has tested positive for such diseases,he or she must pay higher premiums. In Great Britain, life insurance is often tied to home mortgages. Thus, people who are predisposed to certain genetically detected illnesses face much higher costs in obtaining housing and may be unable to afford to have children. Some social reformers argue that peoplefacing serious illness should not bear additional financial burdens, while insurers argue that they must protect their business interests and the interests of the collective group.
In a development of international interest, researchers are narrowing down genetic components, or alleles, that are linked to the early onset of Alzheimer's disease, a life-threatening form of dementia. Research groups such as theNational Institute on Aging (U.S.) and the Alzheimer's Disease Genetics Consortium (Great Britain) are leading the debate on how such testing should be carried out, and on what should be done with the information obtained.
All of these experiments pose fundamental questions of life, birth, heredityand disease that have been debated by early eugenicists.