Sir Francis Galton, Victorian psychologist and scientist, was by all accounts a genius. He was responsible for inventions such as the weather map and classifying fingerprints for use in forensic science. He also began studying short term climate change in his native England. As a half cousin to Charles Darwin, he became fascinated with The Origin of the Species and began to study selective breeding in animals. It wasn’t a far stretch for him to weigh the possibilities of selective breeding in humans, and the study of eugenics was born.
Eugenics was first studied as a way to pass on desirable traits, like intelligence, among humans. It began its shadowy and often debated turn in the United States in the late 1800’s when it became a study into the possibility of breeding out undesirable traits, rather than breeding in desirable ones. In 1911, the United States founded the Eugenics Records Office in New York. This department was dedicated to studying family histories of those who were deemed “undesirable,” and the conclusion was reached that “undesirable” individuals came from poor families with no real social standing, minorities and immigrants. Most shocking was the “conclusion” that being poor was not due to poverty itself, but due to genetics.
Many citizens of the US are unaware that the United States passed resolutions to sterilize people that were deemed unsuitable. In the 1900’s, thirty three states had sterilization laws that forced sterilization on mentally ill people as well as alcoholics, poverty, physical handicaps, and even promiscuity. It was during this time that African American women were unknowingly sterilized as they underwent other, unrelated medical procedures. The estimation is that around 65,000 Americans were sterilized before eugenics fell out of favor in the United States just before World War II.
Eugenics, though, had spread across the sea and was being practiced in Germany even before the rise of Adolf Hitler. Much like the United States, people were being sterilized against their will for possessing traits such as handicaps, mental illness, and homosexuality. Between the years of 1939 and 1941, eugenics had been brought to fruition in a movement called Atkion T4, under Adolf Hitler as chancellor, and an estimated 400,000 were sterilized with an additional 70,000 to 100,000 more being killed under the act. Adolf Hitler believed that the Aryan race was superior; anyone wishing to marry and bear children had to receive permission from the government first, and the eugenics movement was ramping up to its horrifying conclusion of The Final Solution, or the Holocaust.
Eugenics has had some more modern resurfacing, with forced sterilizations on prisoners and immigrants happening as recently as the 1970’s in the United States. Some argue that abortion in the face of disability or undesired children is a modern branch of eugenics, as well. Ideologists and followers of a more extreme eugenics also believe parents have the right to euthanize new-born babies who do not have desired physical traits, or those who have inherited a mental or physical disease.
Currently, a beneficial form of eugenics is being practiced under the realm of genetic research. Scientists are hoping that by allowing parents to pre-screen their own health, they may uncover inherited diseases that would be passed on to offspring. These parents are allowed to make their own choice on carrying on with a pregnancy or not. This testing is particularly useful in races who share common diseases; scientists hope to be able to eradicate these diseases entirely. Since these tests are voluntary, they are a far cry from the forced sterilization practiced under the guise of eugenics in the past.
The controversy that is eugenics, however, is a deep seated moral question that is heavily debated even today.