The world’s population has reached eight billion and continues to grow exponentially. In response to the climate crisis and overpopulation, 21st century contemporaries have started to promote eugenics to thwart global disaster—something I thought we had put behind us. Keeping in mind the dark history behind eugenics, it’s once again time to go deeper into the immorality of the concept.
Eugenics is the scientific theory that humans can be improved through selective breeding, eliminating genetically inferior people—usually anyone who wasn’t a white man—as we do with many animals or plants. While this theory is believed to be inaccurate to many scientists, as the previous understanding of Mendelian genetics being connected with things like intelligence or the sheer complexity of genetics itself was not considered, contemporary biologists like Richard Dawkins believe that applied eugenics would work for the betterment of society if the moral aspect of it was taken out.
The prospect that eugenics would be beneficial and allow society to prosper was first proposed by British scientist Francis Galton in 1869, who theorized that humanity could improve by encouraging the superior and fittest members of society to have children. Galton was the first to coin the term “eugenics” itself, which means “well born.”
Galton’s theory became popular in all parts of the world, including the U.S., where, in addition to the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s 1865 studies based on inheritance patterns of pea plants—which are simpler than human inheritance patterns, a fact few considered—scientists started to actively study ways that would result in only desirable traits of certain people being reproduced, eerily similar to what people had started to do with livestock.
Movements supporting the active elimination of “inferior” people started in the late 19th century, backed by states and the federal government. The Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was founded in 1910 by geneticist Charles Davenport who was one of the first to apply Mendel’s principles to human inheritance traits while upholding Galton’s eugenic theories. According to the office, their mission was to uphold “the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family.”
Thus began the uneasy sentiment of “fit” and “unfit” humans—and those who were deemed “unfit” were forced to undergo sterilization or institutionalization. These “unfit” people were, in the majority case, from marginalized communities: women, people of color, queer, impoverished, mentally ill, physically disabled, and so on. Victims of eugenics usually had traits with little to no connection to any genetic basis.
One of the most prominent cases of federally approved eugenics happened in 1927 in “Buck v. Bell,” a Supreme Court case arguing for the sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young and poor woman who was seen as “unfit” to procreate. The justices allowed for the sterilization to happen, which started a chain reaction that ended in more than 70,000 people in the nation—mostly women or people of color—being sterilized. The court’s majority stated that “it is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
“Buck v. Bell” upheld the preexisting Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, a law that allowed forcing sterilization of women who were “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity, imbecility,” etc., or people who were deemed unfit to procreate because of supposed mental illness, physical deformity, or even homelessness. Most of the people sterilized were around a third African American and two thirds women.
This trend of eugenic sterilization was echoed throughout the U.S., not just in Virginia—most notably in California, where more than 20,100 people were sterilized before 1964, with 60 percent deemed mentally ill—a precarious trait that usually was ill-diagnosed or used to unjustly institutionalize—and 35 percent were considered mentally deficient. Of those sterilized, as with the precedent, minorities of color were disproportionately targeted. People of Mexican descent represented seven to eight percent of the sterilization, and four percent were African American despite the fact that California’s African American population was only one percent. These numbers come from records that have been altered or are difficult to access, meaning that, in reality, the true numbers are likely much higher.
What is often overlooked, however, is that published works of American eugenics movements bolstered Nazi Germany’s own eugenic views. One of Hitler’s first acts as a dictator was to pass the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, where the Nazis noted the “success of sterilization laws in California.” As we know, Hitler’s eugenic-based ideologies ended in genocide. Where, in order to “cleanse” society in the name of race hygiene, a term used to describe the belief of a superior race, thousands were sterilized and millions—predominantly Jewish, and others queer, people of color, disabled, mentally ill, and so on—were massacred in the Holocaust.
There are countless more examples of mass sterilizations and eugenics-induced genocide. As history proves, eugenics had little to do with genetics and more so white, heteronormative, ableist, xenophobic, racist bigotry. And while these radical views have faded in the 21st century, the spirit of eugenics continues to persist in more subtle, sometimes obvious, sinister ways.
Contemporary views on eugenics are less based on forced sterilization but rather pressured suggestions and influence. Such cases can be seen in poverty, where many critics believe it is immoral to have children as a poor person, or with discussions around autism, where people are discouraged from having a child if there is a chance that they may be autistic.
While in theory eugenics is a possible way of creating a “healthier” society, the new eugenics movement is just as morally reprehensible as historical eugenics as it refuses to acknowledge the root problem that reinforce such societal issues, and instead chooses to put more privileged people first.
Being “fit” or “unfit” for society is inherently subjective—and even if humanity were to continue our eugenics campaign, the result would be a homogenous society where even the slightest differences would be vastly disadvantaged, current persisting inequalities would become noticeably larger, and disadvantaged people such as those of color, impoverished, etc. would be left to once again fend for themselves.
A world where only “perfect” people are allowed to exist forces another wave of marginalization of humans who are “imperfect,” an extremely flawed and biased world that is already existing today.
What people don’t think about is the fact that human genetics is so vastly complicated: scientists are still finding new things about it. Humans are not pea plants—we don’t fall easily into Punnett squares.
Environmental upbringing is just as influential as a parent’s DNA, and even if it wasn’t, genetics is never a straight-forward process. There are mutations, random changes, recessive genes that aren’t considered, unprompted illnesses—something I relate to as I was a physically healthy, young woman who suddenly was diagnosed with a chronic demyelinating disease with no discernible cause—and so on.
There are certain situations that are morally ambiguous. There are moments where some people genuinely don’t want to have children because they have a genetic illness that they would never want their child to go through, and other such reasons—but those are personal choices based on personal experience, something eugenics doesn’t account for. Humanity is never black and white, which is why theories such as eugenics shouldn’t exist—it’s never that simple.
When addressing the health of a society, ignoring problems and instead furthering comfort is the easy way out. We deserve more than that.