Tag Archives: coercion

Thursday Eugenics Roundup

“Eugenics is old history, kind of scary to read about but reassuringly far in the past. We don’t really need to know about that, right, professor? Right???”

Sorry kids. It’s going to be on the exam. The discussion over the California prison sterilizations continues. Today, the Huffington Post carries a compassionate and well-informed historical essay by Alexandra Stern, who Genotopia readers know as a distinguished historian of eugenics and genetic counseling. “Many of the stereotypes that fueled 20th century sterilization abuse remain in vogue today,” she points out.

Dr. James Heinrich, who performed tubal ligations of women in prisons, stated that this practice saved the state money because his involuntary clients were likely to have “unwanted children as they procreated more.” Such a callous attitude could have been uttered by superintendents in the 1930s, who worried about the economic burden of “defectives,” or by the obstetrician at USC/LA County who purportedly spoke to his staff about “how low we can cut the birth rate of the Negro and Mexican populations in Los Angeles County.”

She concludes, “It is time to break the cycle of reproductive injustice in California, and to challenge the continuing potency of eugenic rationales of cost-saving and societal betterment that have undergirded compulsory or unauthorized sterilizations. The 21st century calls for a new era of human rights, institutional oversight, and the protection of vulnerable populations.” I should also point out the two excellent posts on the California sterilization fiasco over at Nursing Clio, one by Tina Kibbe, the other by Adam Turner.herndon small

At the other end of the country, North Carolina lawmakers are currently finalizing this year’s budget plan, and it includes $10M for victims of the state’s eugenic sterilization program, which reached its peak in the 1940s and 1950s. Claude Nash Herndon, a physician and medical geneticist who I feature in my book, was one of the leaders of the program. He was by all accounts a kind man and a good doctor. He also had the beliefs common to prosperous white people in the South in that period, and the paternalistic attitudes common to physicians then. The North Carolina sterilization program was a point of pride for the state. The definitive sources for this chilling story are the Winston-Salem Journal’s series of news articles “Against their Will,” and Johanna Schoen’s thorough, scholarly, and chilling account, Choice and Coercion.

Debate of course rages about this program. Some say money won’t undo the damage, while others say hell yes, it will help. Some ask where the money is going to come from, while others ask why such a small sum is being set aside. There were an estimated 1,800 people sterilized against their will under the program. Tribtown.com shows that if 1,000 come forward with legitimate claims, they will receive $10,000 each. How do you put a price tag on your fertility? Some choose not to have children voluntarily, while for others the prospect of having children is one of the things that gives life meaning.

I personally can never do the math of converting morality into money. But I do believe a cash settlement provides some compensation, gives the victims at least a small sense of justice, and exacts a penalty of public shaming–however late–on a governing body that could have known better.

Is public shaming a valid reason? Does that justify all this attention and money? You bet. Shame should never be used vindictively, but a proper sense of shame is an essential check on antisocial behavior. Aversion to shame is one of the things that ensures civility. Sadly, in the real world, that often involves money, difficult thought it may be to calculate the exchange rate.

Eugenics: the week in review

It’s been a great week for eugenics fans. First, we learned that California has been involuntarily sterilizing pregnant prisoners for the last 15 years–a haunting coda to Alexandra Stern’s chilling research on California’s 20th century eugenics program. Then Jon Entine wrote that eugenics is coming back and that’s just fine–provoking a lively exchange with yours truly. And now Dhruti Shah publishes an article on the BBC site claiming of all things that the Nazis “undermined” eugenics. Damn! And it had all been going so well up until then!

I’m gathering my thoughts on this issue, so stay tuned. But two points immediately leap out at me. First, both Entine and Shah are either ignorant or Panglossian about the early history of eugenics. Entine writes that some imagined “negative wing” of the eugenics movement “was never widely embraced.” Historians of eugenics agree that on some level, almost everyone in the Progressive era was a eugenicist, in the sense of advocating or supporting eugenics. There was no “negative wing”–there was only positive and negative eugenics, which were seen as complimentary.

And Shah writes that the Nazis’ use of eugenics “ended up undermining its credibility as a science.” Actually, its credibility as a science had been undermined for quite some time. By 1933, few seriously trained geneticists were willing to do more than sigh longingly for the day when we would know enough to direct our own evolution without wrecking the gene pool, society, or both. Its popularity as medicine and as population control rose steadily through and beyond the Nazi period. Indeed, the Nazis’ experiment in scientifically rationalized genocide coincided with the peak in sterilization and compulsory birth control of Americans and Scandinavians, and with explicitly eugenic programs ranging from immigration control to race- and class-based family planning on every inhabited continent of the globe.

The second point that immediately comes to mind is that these reports and commentaries suggest that my argument, which I made in the conclusion of The Science of Human Perfection, about eugenics regaining respectability in the post-genome age, is correct (see also my article “The Eugenic Impulse“). Scientists, at least, really do seem to be more comfortable with the term “eugenics” as a name for what they are trying to do. And what they’re trying to do, in a nutshell, is engineer ourselves a better future. To control human evolution.

The argument is that “Sure, it was done wrong before–but that was because we didn’t understand the science well enough.” That’s always the argument. Eugenicists have always said “Now we know enough to do it right.” And the next generation always comes along and clucks its tongue at the naivete and ignorance of its forbears.

No, it’s not because we didn’t understand the science. It’s because we didn’t understand society well enough before. And for all the remarkable technological advances of the last century, there’s scant evidence that we understand society much better now.