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According to The Columbia Encyclopedia (2002), Eugenics: "(yjn´ks) ... [is the] study of human genetics and of methods to improve the inherited characteristics, physical and mental, of the human race. Efforts to improve the human race through bettering housing facilities and other environmental conditions are known as euthenics."

"Sir Francis Galton, who introduced the term eugenics, is usually regarded as the founder of the modern science of eugenics; his emphasis was on the role of factors under social control that could either improve or impair the qualities of future generations. Modern eugenics is directed chiefly toward the discouragement of propagation among the unfit (negative eugenics) and encouragement of propagation among those who are healthy, intelligent, and of high moral character (positive eugenics). Such a program involves many difficulties, especially that of defining which traits are most desirable."

"The first half of the 20th cent. saw extreme coercive application of such principles by governments ranging from miscegenation laws and enforced sterilization of the insane in the United States and other nations to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Regulated eugenics continues in some parts of the world; China enacted restrictions on marriages involving persons with certain disabilities and diseases in 1994."

"In the United States in recent years, interest in eugenics has centered around genetic screening. It is known, for example, that hemophilia, albinism, and certain structural abnormalities are inheritable. Family gene maps, called pedigrees, can help families with serious diseases avoid having children with the same diseases through genetic counseling, and, increasingly, prospective parents can be tested directly for the presence of undesired genes. If conception has occurred, tests such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling can be used to detect certain genetic defects in the fetus."

"See J. H. Bennett, Natural Selection, Heredity, and Eugenics (1983); D. J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (1986); M. B. Adams, ed., The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (1989).

Copied from The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2002 Columbia University Press.

The Encyclopedia of Bioethics Eugenics entry notes that the term has had different meanings in different eras: "a science that investigates methods to ameliorate the genetic composition of the human race, a program to foster such betterment; a social movement; and in its perverted form, a pseudo-scientific retreat for bigots and racists" (V, Ludmerer 1978, p. 457). Kevles, with a stronger emphasis on its degeneration, says that by 1935 "eugenics had become 'hopelessly perverted' into a pseudoscientific facade for `advocates of race and class prejudice, defenders of vested interests of church and state, Fascists, Hitlerites, and reactionaries generally'"(I, Kevles 1985, p. 164).

Phrases such as "survival of the fittest" and "struggle for existence" came into use at the end of the 19th century when eugenics societies were created throughout the world to popularize genetic science. `Negative eugenics' utilized marriage restriction, sterilization, or custodial commitment of those thought to have unwanted characteristics. `Positive eugenics' tried to encourage the population perceived as the "best and brightest" to have more offspring (V, Ludmerer, 1978, p. 459).

In the United States, after World War I, new ideas like the importance of environmental influences and the more complex concept of multi-gene effects in inheritance had slowed scientific justification for eugenics, but this knowledge did not slow pressure for legislation, judicial action, or immigration controls. The U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 favored immigration from northern Europe and greatly restricted the entry of persons from other areas referred to as "biologically inferior." Between 1907 and 1937 thirty-two states required sterilization of various citizens viewed as undesirable: the mentally ill or handicapped, those convicted of sexual, drug, or alcohol crimes and others viewed as "degenerate" (V, Larson 1991).

In Germany interest in eugenics flourished after the turn of the century when Dr. Alfred Ploetz founded the Archives of Race-Theory and Social Biology in 1904 and the German Society of Racial Hygiene in 1905. The German term Rassenhygiene or race hygiene was broader than the word eugenics; it included all attempts at improving hereditary qualities as well as measures directed at population increase (III, Weiss 1987). By the 1920s various German textbooks incorporated ideas of heredity and racial hygiene, and German professors were participating in the international eugenics movement. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics was founded in 1927; by 1933 a sterilization law which had been entitled "Eugenics in the service of public welfare" indicated compulsory sterilization "for the prevention of progeny with hereditary defects" in cases of "congenital mental defects, schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, hereditary epilepsy... and severe alcoholism." (III, Müller-Hill 1988, p. 10).

The co-mingling of science, politics, and Weltanschauung (ideological or religious world view) caused the darkest period for eugenics when Nazi Germans embarked on their "final solution" to the Jewish question, or the Holocaust. The Nazi racial hygiene program began with involuntary sterilizations and ended with genocide. Beginning with the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Congenitally Ill Progeny, 350,000 schizophrenics and mentally ill were involuntarily sterilized, and marriage or sexual contact between Jews and other Germans was banned. A few hundred black children and 30,000 German Gypsies were sterilized. By 1945, when the allies liberated those remaining in Nazi concentration camps, six million Jews, 750,000 Gypsies, and 70,000 German psychiatric patients had been killed by the Nazis (III, Müller-Hill 1992, p. 47). After the German experience, eugenic thought was at its nadir, and to the present, the term "eugenics" invokes a sense of horror in some people.

Great Britain, the United States and Germany were the countries most involved with eugenic science in the first half of this century, but interest was always present in Europe and other parts of the world. Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Norway and Sweden had eugenics movements of their own. With the rise of new genetic technologies, and the technical ability to change an individual's genetic heritage, eugenics is once again a topic both discussed and written about throughout the world.

Since World War II, interest in the type of eugenics popular in the early half of the century has changed. Utilizing gene therapy, genetic testing, genetic screening, and genetic counseling, scientists and clinicians use knowledge of inherited disease or other genetic problems to change (for the better) those persons who can be assisted. Still, questions are raised about the morality of changing human genes, the wisdom of acting when no cure is available, or the legality of breaching a patient's genetic confidentiality. Most geneticists and other health professionals think that to proscribe any genetic intervention would be wrong since people "need and deserve to have whatever information may be available concerning genetic risks, genetic disorders, and modes of treatment" even if problems may be inherent in genetic screening, counseling or therapy (I, Kevles 1985, p. 291).

Concepts central to the old eugenics have not completely disappeared: recent Chinese law, the Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care, which took effect June 1, 1995, requires premarital checkups to determine whether either partner carries "genetic diseases of a serious nature", infectious diseases (AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis and leprosy), or a "relevant mental disease." The law stipulates that marriages will be permitted only after the couple has been sterilized (IV, Tomlinson 1994, p. 1319). In speaking of the then draft legislation in 1993, a health minister cited statistics showing that China "now has more than ten million disabled persons who could have been prevented through better controls" (V, Tyler 1993, p. A9).

Eugenics, according to Eugenics Watch, is "false science. It is about the selective prevention or encouragement of births for social, racial, or political ends. When promoting anti-natalist measures, such measures are often hidden beneath rhetoric about freedom of choice or reproductive health. When eugenic goals demand increased fertility, those goals may be advanced in the name of national power, race survival, or even family support programs (including maternity leave, day care, child care allowances, etc. as in much of Europe today) which would be considered progressive if not for the intent behind them."[1]

"Eugenics is not about reproductive freedom. It is, in fact, the antithesis of reproductive freedom because it is essentially concerned with competitive fertility. As such, it is similar to -- but not identical to -- population control. The distinction here is that eugenics supplies a biological or genetic interpretation to its means and aims. If it is a particular race that is to targeted, for instance, the eugenicist will first offer a scientific basis for such a plan -- usually consisting of statistical evidence that the disfavoured group is less capable of achievement, more prone to anti-social behaviour, or otherwise disproportionately responsible for a prevalent social problem. Most importantly, the eugenicist will insist that this 'inferiority' is hereditary -- that 'excessively' high birthrates among these people will lead to a general decline in the quality of the society as a whole."[2]

"Thus the eugenicist will argue the legitimacy of a public policy that minimises procreation among certain groups, while often simultaneously promoting greater fertility among other segments of the population."[3]

"It should be added that an activity designed to influence levels of fertility is not the only tactic available for use under a eugenic programme. High rates of incarceration (especially where a large number of young adults are concerned) may be tolerated precisely because imprisonment results in a loss of reproductive opportunity. Eugenic goals also extend to immigration when an exclusion policy selects by ethnicity or class. As was made abundantly clear under the nazi programme of mass genocide, a well-functioning eugenics operation is never satisfied for long with modest results. It is almost inevitable that whenever such policies are found 'useful,' increased activity of the same sort will be seen as 'more useful.'"[4]

"The word eugenics comes from the Greek for 'good genes.' Therefore, any policy that is thought by advocates to stimulate the prevalence of 'good genes' is considered eugenic in its effect. Another term -- dysgenic -- is applied to a situation in which the undesirable elements grow at a greater rate than the rest."[5]

"Finally, it should be pointed out that eugenics can be broken down into several distinct philosophies. Social Darwinism is a term commonly applied to class-based eugenics. The operative theory here is that wealth is spontaneously distributed throughout the society according to the merits of the individuals within the society. In other words, the Social Darwinist believes the wealthy are rich because of inherent traits that make them successful. The poor, on the other hand, are said to be destined to want precisely because they are of 'inferior stock.' Thus, in the mind of the eugenicist, any effort to promote economic justice has a dysgenic effect because it only encourages breeding among inferior types."[6]

"This kind of thinking can be found in advocacy of such contemporary proposals as the 'family cap' for welfare parents, certain efforts to halt teen pregnancy, and the flap about ... 'illegitimacy.'"[7]

"Likewise, racial eugenics defines people from different regions of the world as having unique 'evolutionary characteristics' which make one group more suited to certain pursuits than another. This is the ideology behind The Bell Curve and similar publications that have aroused controversy in the past few years."[8]

"Some proponents of eugenics cite physical or mental disabilities as cause for limits to reproduction. In terms of policy, they are more interested in stigmatizing the alcoholic, the drug abuser, or the mental patient than in seeking authentic forms of treatment and measures that would influence the economic or social environment in which such problems flourish. This form of eugenics has made inroads into many of the more legitimate sciences such as human genetics and bio-ethics. Indeed, eugenics is especially dangerous in this area because of the opportunity to apply obvious truths -- the fact that children inherit physical features from their parents, to name one -- to political issues, such as 'criminal tendencies' or an 'underclass' culture, in a way that results in discriminatory policies."[9]

Copied from the Eugenics Watch web site.

Eugenics Organizations

Critical Books

  • Bonnie Mass, Population Target: The Political Economy of Population Control in Latin America (Zed Press, 1976).
  • Linda Gordon, Women's Body, Women's Rights: Birth Control in America (Penguin, 1977).
  • Thomas Shapiro, Population Control Politics: Women, Sterilization, and Reproductive Choice (Temple University Press, 1985).
  • Maria Miles, “New Reproductive Technologies: Sexist and Racist Implications,” In: Maria Miles and Vandana Shiva (eds), Ecofeminism (Zed Books, 1993).
  • Eric Ross, The Malthus Factor: Population, Poverty, and Politics in Capitalist Development (Zed Books, 1999).
  • Donald Critchlow, Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Harvard University Press, 2008)

Other Related SourceWatch Resources

External links


  • 4 July 2003: "The New Eugenics" by Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed in The New York Times.
  • 11 July 2003: "Is Race Real?" by Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed in The New York Times: "Genetics increasingly shows that racial and ethnic distinctions are real -- but often fuzzy and greatly exaggerated. Genetics will increasingly show that most humans are mongrels, and it will make a mockery of racism."