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Against their Will: The American Eugenics Movement

During the first half of the twentieth century, a new ‘science,’ eugenics, tried to identify “fit” and “unfit” traits in people and track these traits in family trees. Proponents hoped families could use eugenics to capitalize on their strongest genes and have ‘better’ children.  However, eugenics took a negative turn when supporters tried to use it to weed out the “unfit.” Eugenists tried to show that conditions such as “feebleminded-ness,” alcoholism, promiscuity, homosexuality, and criminality were genetic and could be passed down from parent to child. Eugenists promoted programs that would rid society of these conditions. The ‘science’ behind the eugenics movement was not science at all and the movement was discredited. 

031912-1 Today, the eugenics movement is most often associated with Germany’s Nazi party and the Holocaust, during which 6 million Jews and approximately 270,000 Roma were killed in an attempt to create a pure race. However, beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing for decades beyond World War II, there existed an active eugenics movement in the United States. Between 1909 and 1963, California forcibly sterilized nearly 20,000 people. Between 1929 and 1974, 7,600 people were victims of North Carolina’s sterilization program. Nearly 7,400 people were sterilized in Virginia between 1924 and 1979. These were among the highest sterilization numbers in the country. However, California, North Carolina, and Virginia leaders were not alone in their attempts to cleanse their states of the “feeble-minded,” and “mentally deficient.” Thirty-two states had eugenics programs; there were approximately 60,000 victims.

In January, 2012, the North Carolina Eugenics Compensation Task Force recommended the state pay $50,000 reparation to each victim. If approved by the legislature, it would be the first instance of reparation for forced sterilization in the country. Last week, California’s Department of Developmental Services released this statement: "The State of California deeply regrets the harm caused to victims of involuntary sterilization that occurred through the first half of the 1900s. This was a sad and painful period in California's history, one that should never be repeated."

This week, you will learn more of the eugenics movement in America.

Eugenics in America

031912-2 Cold Spring Laboratory was the epicenter of the American eugenics movement. The movement ended long ago; however, Cold Spring Laboratory still exists and remains active in the fields of genetics and molecular biology research. It also hosts two interactive websites that help us understand the eugenics movement and its history in America. Begin by examining the social origins of the movement (the photo album) at the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.  Consider: How was society changing? What social problems did America face? How did eugenics address these issues?

To understand what eugenics was, how it influenced American culture and politics, and how and why it failed, travel to the sister-site, Chronicle. Chronicle features four modules: Threat of the Unfit, Trial of Carrie Buck, In the Third Reich, and Living with Eugenics. You will tour three of these sections.  

In the early twentieth century, genetics was a new science. Eugenists tried to apply Mendel’s experiments on peas, and new information about agricultural breeding to humans. Their hope was to filter out the traits deemed “unfit” and solve America’s social problems. Learn more about the Threat of the Unfit with host and Nobel Laureate, Dr. James Watson. As you explore, think about these questions: Who was “unfit” and why were they a threat? Which traits did they hope to strengthen and which did they hope to eradicate? How did environmental factors play into eugenics? How did eugenics affect politics and social policy? What were the research flaws of eugenics? 031912-3

Be sure to view fit and unfit matings in the founders chapter and all of the videos in the remaining three chapters.

Buck versus Bell

Eugenists hoped to end a range of social ills from pauperism to alcoholism, and “unfit” behaviors such as promiscuity. They saw sterilization as the means to that end. What was needed was a test case to determine the legal legitimacy of forced sterilization. Carrie Buck, a seventeen-year-old, became that test case and the face of American eugenics movement.

Meet the people involved in the court case in the players chapter. Be sure to watch all the videos available for Carrie, Emma, and Vivian Buck, and to read about Irving Whitehead and Harry Laughlin.

031912-4 Buck versus Bell moved through the Virginia court system to the U.S. Supreme Court. The trial chapter will familiarize you with the court case. Why did the prosecution claim Carrie should be sterilized? What evidence was offered in support of sterilization and what was the decision? Why were orphans, mental patients, and paupers easy targets for the eugenics movement, and common victims of forced sterilization?

The consequences of the verdict reached far beyond one teenage girl. Learn more about the outcomes. Be sure to watch all of the videos in this chapter. What were the national consequences of Buck versus Bell?  In addition to being a policy issue, the case of Buck versus Bell was a tangible, personal tragedy. Read the final chapter, epilogue, to debunk the evidence against Carrie, and correct the record. Watch all the video segments in this final chapter.


Eugenics Today?

The goal of the Human Genome Project was to identify and map the over 20,000 genes found in the human genome. In 2003 a complete draft of the human genome became available. This Project revolutionized scientists’ understanding of our genetic makeup. One hope is that this information will allow scientists to identify disease-causing genes and to develop effective cures or treatment options. Watch an excerpt from NOVA about the Human Genome Project.

What will be the consequences of this information? How will it affect public policy, health insurance, human diversity, and personal choices? What would you do if you knew your unborn child’s DNA contained the gene for a chronic illness? Follow Kay Redfield Jamison as she explains and examines manic depression in Chronicle’s final module, Living with Eugenics. What does she fear the impact will be of future genetic testing on chronic yet treatable conditions, like manic depression? What do you imagine is the future of genetic testing and genetic science? Which possibilities would you find acceptable and unacceptable?