Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eugenics, Revisited

Sunday I noted here the connection between the early 20th century eugenics movement and Hitler’s activities to purify the Aryan race. This connection between the ideas of intellectuals and the consequences they generated seems to have been swept under the carpet by historians. Today's blog entry is essentially an attempt to shine the spotlight on how far our own shameful activities went right here in the good old U.S.A. with regard to the implementation of ideas spawned by eugenicists.

We talk about how awful Hitler was (and he was) but when you look at the State approved activities here, it is nothing less than shocking. Let’s start with Paul Lombardo’s article on Eugenic Sterilization Laws.

While some eugenicists privately supported practices such as euthanasia or even genocide, legally-mandated sterilization was the most radical policy supported by the American eugenics movement. A number of American physicians performed sterilizations even before the surgery was legally approved, though no reliable accounting of the practice exists prior to passage of sterilization laws. Indiana enacted the first law allowing sterilization on eugenic grounds in 1907, with Connecticut following soon after. Despite these early statutes, sterilization did not gain widespread popular approval until the late 1920s.

Advocacy in favor of sterilization was one of Harry Laughlin’s first major projects at the Eugenics Record Office. In 1914, he published a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that proposed to authorize sterilization of the "socially inadequate" – people supported in institutions or "maintained wholly or in part by public expense. The law encompassed the "feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf; deformed; and dependent" – including "orphans, ne'er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless and paupers." By the time the Model Law was published in 1914, twelve states had enacted sterilization laws.

By the time this sterilization craze had run its course more than 30 states had sterilization laws on the books. What’s disturbing to me is how buried this piece of institutionalized national horror has become.

Here is documentation of sterilizations performed in the name of science up through 1933. I love the euphemism involved. The organization keeping these records was the Human Betterment Society!

A more recent event that no doubt escaped our notice is the May 2002 apology by Virginia Governor Mark Warner to a man who had been sterilized against his will at age 16.

"Today, I offer the commonwealth's sincere apology for Virginia's participation in eugenics," Warner said.

"As I have previously noted, the eugenics movement was a shameful effort in which state government never should have been involved," he said. "We must remember the commonwealth's past mistakes in order to prevent them from recurring."

The law targeted virtually any human shortcoming that was believed to be hereditary, including mental illness, mental retardation, epilepsy, alcoholism and criminal behavior. Even people deemed to be "ne'er-do-wells" were sometimes targeted.

On Wednesday in Lynchburg, two state legislators presented a commendation from the General Assembly to eugenics victim Raymond W. Hudlow for his service as a decorated combat soldier in World War II. Hudlow had been sterilized against his will at age 16 because he was a runaway.

Current research indicates that by the time all was said and done, as many as 66,000 were the victims of forced sterilization.

When history repeats itself, it often comes at us with a new face, but the same heartless soul. We need to be aware that these things didn't just happen "over there" but happened right here. Just a bit of food for thought.


Melissa said...

It is amazing how we conveniently leave behind consciousness of our own participation in activities similar to what we've defined as completely Other than ourselves. This limits our ability to address underlying habits of thought and being, ones we will not own up to having. Even now. I think of the ability to test for certain markers and abort fetuses with conditions not to our liking. As the genome is unraveled more and more, the ability to do this with all kinds of diseases and propensities towards diseases and disorders will increase. I read the memoirs of those who suffer from bipolar disorder, and this is one of the disorders people have expressed wanting to abort over-which is sad since some of the most valuable contributions to culture have come from those who suffer from it. (Read Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched with Fire).

Ed Newman said...

Yes, I agree with you. In point of fact, the more we paint Hitler as a madman and monster, the less we recognize our own Hitlers as they rise up here...

The positive aspect of a large middle class in America is a greater stability since they will not want to overthrow the system. The achilles heel is that people will avert they eyes and "accept" things that ought to be unacceptable... We complain, but we are not going to have a revolution over some of these things which most people are not informed enough to understand.

It gets scary when we politically re-define insanity and what is unacceptable... Much more could be said on this one. We may not sterilize any more but we force people to take pills that have other detrimental effects.

It's all very complicated, so... people focus instead on who will be the next American Idol.

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