As the congressional debate over embryonic stem cell research reignites after the Easter recess, few will recall the passing anniversary of another great bioethics debate. Only one century ago, eugenics the attempt to improve the human race through better breeding was all the rage in the scientific world. And this spring marks the centenary of the world’s first forced-sterilization law.
One might guess that such a law was passed in Germany, but they’d be wrong. In the spring of 1907, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill designed to forcibly “prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” And then-Gov. Frank Hanley signed it into law.
Several states followed suit, and by the 1930s, 30 states had passed similar laws. Unfortunately, as these laws became more common, forced sterilization spread to the loose category of “feeble-minded.” In the end, tens of thousands were sterilized against their will, many of whom would likely not be deemed mentally handicapped today.
And the states were not the only culprits. All three branches of the federal government advocated eugenics. In the run-up to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, Congress relied on eugenics arguments and even heard testimony from an “expert eugenics agent.” The intent was to restrict the access of Italians, Jews and other “defectives” to American shores. In the Executive Branch, Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson promoted eugenics through the American Breeders Association. And not to be outdone, in 1927 Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously upheld a forced-serialization law in Buck v. Bell proclaiming, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” This verdict legitimized the state of Virginia’s decision to sterilize Carrie Buck, considered to be a threat to the species for only attaining a sixth-grade education and having an immoral mother.
Eugenics was supposedly the “science” of human breeding. It was promoted by luminaries of biology at Harvard, Princeton and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was, in short, the consensus view of the cultural and academic elite. How did things get so twisted?
The acknowledged founder of the eugenics movement is Francis Galton. Through an examination of the British upper class, Galton tried to show that talent is largely hereditary. As eugenics ideas spread, it was not much of a stretch for Indiana’s General Assembly to believe conversely that “heredity plays a most important part in the transmission of crime, idiocy and imbecility.”
While modern Darwinists may wince, eugenics clearly drew inspiration from Darwin’s theory. In fact, Galton was Darwin’s cousin. He took evolutionary theory seriously, arguing persuasively that hospitals, mental institutions and social welfare all violate the law of natural selection. These institutions preserve the weak at the expense of the gene pool. In the wild, such people would die off naturally, thus keeping the human race strong. As Darwin himself declared in The Descent of Man, “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this has been highly injurious to the race of man. … Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”
Defenders of Darwin note he insisted that we could not follow cold hard reason on this matter. But as Galton and other eugenists reckoned, if the human race is truly in jeopardy, strong, even harsh measures must be taken to preserve it. In America, only the horrors of the Holocaust broke this chain of reasoning. Consequently, eugenics died out.
There are many lessons to be learned from the history of eugenics. Foremost among them, perhaps, is that we can do great evil in the name of compassion.