Eugenics Revisited

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw an emergence of the eugenics movement in which eugenic sterilization, anti-immigrant advocacy, and anti-mixed race marriage activism all played crucial roles in the goal of advancing social control by a small elite. This social philosophy promoted reproductive intervention with the goal of improving hereditary traits, and, ultimately, the human race. In 1859, Charles Darwin published Origin of the Species, which espoused his theory of evolution. Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s half-cousin, studied this work and looked more deeply into hereditary traits. In 1883, Galton coined the term “eugenics,” which he later clarified as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.1” The eugenics movement began affecting legislation in the United States during the late 19th century. Connecticut enacted a marriage law in 1896 with eugenic criteria prohibiting anyone from marrying who was “epileptic, imbecile, or feeble-minded.” In 1907, Indiana became the first state of more than 30 to adopt legislation aimed at compulsory sterilization of certain individuals.2 In 1924, Virginia followed suit and enacted a eugenic sterilization law allowing state institutions to operate on individuals to prevent the conception of “genetically inferior” children. Carrie Buck was chosen as the first person to be sterilized under the new law. (NOTE: In the 1927 case, Buck v. Bell, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Virginia law allowing for the compulsory sterilization of patients of state mental institutions.3) By 1941, 33 states had endorsed sterilization policies and more than 60,000 eugenic sterilizations had been performed. (Most of these state laws were not repealed until after the 1960s.) During the 1920s, the National Education Association’s Committee on Racial Well-Being sponsored programs to help college teachers integrate eugenic content in their courses. Eugenics continued to grow in popularity on college campuses as an academic discipline, and by 1928, the American Genetics Association boasted there were 376 courses devoted exclusively to eugenics. By the mid-1930s, high school biology textbooks followed suit with most containing material favorable to the idea of eugenic control of reproduction.4After the mid-1930s, the eugenics movement declined somewhat in importance. In 1936, medical panels in England and the United States condemned compulsory eugenic sterilization surgeries. (NOTE: Nearly 500 people had died from these surgeries, and later evidence showed that Buck and many others had no “hereditary defects” to begin with!5) Although eugenics lost the majority of its popularity, the guiding principles still held an influence. nce, some countries still espoused the ideologies The most notable example was Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, where more than 400,000 people were forcibly sterilized because they were deemed mentally and physically “unfit.”6Today, practices such as genetic engineering (which displays the social attitudes toward heredity that supported eugenics at the height of its popularity) remain in the public consciousness.


1 Rethinking Schools Online. Accessed 1/28/08 from
2 Political Research Associates. Accessed 1/28/08 from
3 Center for Biomedical Ethics. Accessed 1/31/08 from
4 Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. Accessed 1/28/08 from
5 Political Research Associates. Accessed 1/28/08 from
6 Maccaro, James A. (1997). From Small Beginnings: The Road to Genocide. The Freeman, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. Vol.47, No.7


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