Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bad Ideas: The Eugenics Movement In America

Let’s say it again. Bad ideas have bad consequences.

Tuesday on National Public Radio I listened to a story about one of the victims of a forced sterilization program in North Carolina. At age 14, when she was giving birth to her first child she was sterilized without her knowledge. At age 19, married and trying to have children, she discovered that a procedure was performed without her permission or even being told about it. Today a panel is recommending she be compensated for her loss.

The shocking part of the story is that this event occurred in 1966, not 1936 or 46. According to Wikipedia, the North Carolina Eugenics Commission was not abolished until 1977. What!?
In early 2010 I was astonished to learn that eugenics advocates managed to get 30 states to put laws on the books making the practice of forced sterilization legal. By 1933, the Human Betterment Foundation had documented over 16,000 such sterilizations. By the time they were finished it's been estimated that as many as 66,000 were victims of these procedures. What were they thinking?

The Winston-Salem Journal’s five-part series blows the lid off this incredible chapter that took place right under our distracted little noses. It went on while Americans were watching Leave It To Beaver. It went on while Americans were dying for freedom in Southeast Asia, and while Americans filled amusement parks from Disneyland to Six Flags. And we never knew.

The story raises many questions. Why did North Carolina continue the practice after most other states had abandoned it? Which raises the next question. How did it come to pass that at least 30 states had laws permitting the practice of forced sterilization.

And then, the spooky question… What are some of the things our government is doing today that we do not even know about, that they do not want us to know about, but which we will learn about in the future when our own kids are grown?

I do not know the numbers, but would guess that the quantity of pills being distributed to children to help with behavioral modification in school may be questioned at some point. It might even shock us the degree to which people in mental institutions are being forced to ingest pharmaceuticals against their will, “for their own good.”

Who are the people making these decisions?

The North Carolina story that has been making news this month, however, has more to do with the problem of how to right the wrongs. A panel has recommended that the state pay one of the victims $50,000. Is that supposed to be the equivalent of justice? That feels like a strange amount to me, a token gesture that says, “Gee, we, uhm, were wrong. Sorry.” No amount of cash is going to make this one right.

The scariest thing to me is that there are still people who believe forced sterilization is good and necessary, and the problem is that those who govern us just don’t have the will to do “what needs to be done.”

I was actually pleased to hear this story being talked about so publicly. It's an ugly chapter in our history, but a good reminder of what can happen when idealism runs amok.


rebe said...

I read about this in a novel and did some research and I found this and it was appalling. And what we do not realize it that Hilter saw this as an idea to utilize. When we learn history we must learn of all sides of the story fully.

Ed Newman said...

Appalling is a good choice of words. Thanks for the comments.

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