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The US Record on Human Rights

Eugenics in America

  • American Nazis - Eugenics and Euthanasia

  • Few people are aware that the US conducted a long-running eugenics program designed to create a perfect (white) race, that resulted in countless thousands of forced sterilisations, and even deaths, of those considered racially or otherwise inferior.

    Not only that, euthanasia reared its head - in polite company, too. A 1911 Carnegie Institute report recommended euthanasia as one of its "solutions" to the problem of cleansing society of unfit genetic attributes. The most commonly suggested method was to set up local gas chambers.

  • The History of Eugenics in the United States

  • Eugenics, the social movement claiming to improve the genetic features of human populations through selective breeding and sterilization, based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society, has played a significant role in the history and culture of the United States.

    Eugenics was widely accepted in the U.S. academic community. By 1928 there were 376 separate university courses in some of the United States' leading schools, enrolling more than 20,000 students, which included eugenics in the curriculum.

    Most popular in the early 20th century, it was considered a method of establishing order and uniformity in the population. By popularizing the idea of an ideal genetic character, the eugenics movement gave people something to strive towards. It shaped the social character of the times, moving society to value the norm.

    Early proponents of eugenics believed that, through selective breeding, the human species should direct its own evolution.

    They tended to believe in the genetic superiority of Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples; supported strict immigration and anti-miscegenation laws; and supported the forcible sterilization of the poor, disabled and "immoral".

    The American eugenics movement received extensive funding from various corporate foundations including the Carnegie Institution, Rockefeller Foundation, J.H. Kellogg, and the Harriman railroad fortune. Famous proponents included Alexander Graham Bell, Stanford president David Starr Jordan and Luther Burbank.

    The movement favored immigration restriction and sterilization as primary methods. Some favored the segregation of inferior population sectors, and some entertained the idea of extermination.

    Many US States including New York, Massachusetts, Virginia and California, and many American universities had deep ties to the eugenics movement, which aimed to improve the human race much as livestock is bred.

    In all, more than 30 states passed legislation supporting sterilization as part of a eugenic program. The official numbers of surgeries exceeded 65,000, and targeted groups included the "feeble-minded," "imbeciles" and the "socially inadequate."

    The passion for eugenics faded after the war as news of the Nazi atrocities came to light. But American legislators still propose sterilization from time to time as a remedy to "social problems".

  • Unfit vs. Fit Individuals

  • Both class and race factored in to eugenic definitions of "fit" and "unfit." By using intelligence testing, American eugenicists asserted that social mobility was indicative of one’s genetic fitness.

    This reaffirmed the existing class and racial hierarchies and explained why the upper-to-middle class was predominately white. Middle-to-upper class status was a marker of "superior strains" of humanity.

    In contrast, eugenicists believed poverty to be a characteristic of genetic inferiority, which meant that that those deemed "unfit" were predominately of the lower classes.

    Since poverty was associated with prostitution and "mental idiocy", women of the lower classes were the first to be deemed "unfit" and "promiscuous". These women, who were predominately immigrants or women of color, were discouraged from bearing children, and were encouraged to use birth control.

  • Compulsory Sterilization

  • In 1907 Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world. Thirty US states would soon follow their lead, and many US states sterilized "imbeciles" for much of the 20th century.

    The most significant era of US eugenic sterilization ended in the mid-1960s, by which time more than 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation.

  • Euthanasia Programs

  • One of the methods that was commonly suggested to get rid of "inferior" populations was euthanasia. A 1911 report by the famed Carnegie Institute suggested euthanasia as one of its solutions to the problem of cleansing society of unfit genetic attributes.

    The most commonly suggested method was to set up local gas chambers.

    However, many in the eugenics movement did not believe that Americans were ready to implement a large-scale euthanasia program, so many doctors had to find clever ways of subtly implementing eugenic euthanasia in various medical institutions.

    For example, doctors at an institution in Lincoln, Illinois fed its incoming patients milk infected with tuberculosis (reasoning that genetically fit individuals would be resistant), resulting in 30-40% annual death rates. Other doctors practiced eugenicide through various forms of lethal neglect.

    In the 1930s, there was a wave of portrayals of eugenic "mercy killings" in American film, newspapers, and magazines.

    In 1931, the Illinois Homeopathic Medicine Association began lobbying for the right to euthanize "imbeciles" and other defectives. The Euthanasia Society of America was founded in 1938.

  • Influence on Nazi Germany

  • For the past 60 years, the world has been eager to condemn Germany for its master-race eugenics program and the various human experiments performed.

    But no one, least of all Americans, seems aware that Germany patterned both its eugenics program and those experiments on what it had seen in the US, and in fact directly copied many of them.

    Eugenics was practiced in the United States many years before this was initiated in Nazi Germany, and US programs provided much of the inspiration for the latter.

    Moreover, it was the famed US Rockefeller Foundation that helped develop and fund various German eugenics programs, including the one that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz.

    During the Nuremberg trials, several of the Nazi doctors and scientists who were being tried for their human experiments, stated that the inspiration for their work had come from studies that they had seen performed in the United States.

    Many of them cited the influence of American eugenics programs on their policies, and mentioned Buck v. Bell in their testimony.

  • From California to Germany

  • After the eugenics movement was well established in the US, it spread to Germany.

    Eugenicists from California, which had subjected more people to forceful sterilization than all other US states combined, began producing literature promoting eugenics and sterilization and sending it overseas to German scientists and medical professionals.

    A favorable report on the results of sterilization in California was published by the biologist Paul Popenoe and was widely cited by the Nazi government as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were feasible and humane.

    Author Stefan Kühl has detailed the consensus between Nazi Race Politicians and eugenicists in the US, and pointed out that US eugenecists understood Nazi policies and measures as the realization of their own goals.

    Upon returning from Germany in 1934, the California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe bragged to a colleague:

    "You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program.

    Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought.

    I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people.

  • And it Didn't Stop There - CIA Operation Paperclip

  • In 1945, as part of Operation Paperclip, the US government recruited 1,600 Nazi scientists, many of whom had not only practiced eugenics but had performed various kinds of human experimentation in Nazi concentration camps.

    The scientists were offered immunity from any war crimes they had committed for the Nazis, in return for doing research for the US government. After their arrival in America, these Nazi scientists continued their human experimentation for their new CIA masters.

  • The Work of Legal Historian Paul Lombardo

  • Georgia State University legal historian Paul Lombardo spent 30 years researching the US involuntary sterilization laws that led to the often undisclosed sterilization of Americans deemed unfit.

    In February 1980. Lombardo, then a graduate student at the University of Virginia, picked up a newspaper to read as he ate breakfast.

    The article he read was about two sisters sterilized in the 1920s by the state of Virginia for being "feeble-minded." The younger sister hadn't even known she'd had a tubal ligation. She didn't learn until she was in her late 60s that the surgery hadn't been for appendicitis.

    The older, more famous sister - Carrie Buck - was the subject of the now infamous lawsuit over the legality of the operation, Buck v. Bell, that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Although Carrie Buck was the first victim of a 1924 sterilization law, 8,300 Virginians had involuntary sterilization until the practice was stopped in the 1970s and the law repealed in 1974.

  • And it Isn't Over Yet

  • With genetics playing an increasingly important role in science, Lombardo and other bioethicists fear the lessons of the eugenics debacle matter more than ever.

    University of Maryland historian Steven Selden worries about how we will handle the ethical questions of possible genetic "improvements" to humanity. "We're going to revisit all the ethical conundrums that were inherent in the eugenics movement as we move forward."

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