But this year something was added to the Kansas Free State Fair, something Americans had never seen before: a competition judging human beings, both as individuals and as family units. The resemblance to the evaluation of cows and pigs in the livestock contests might have seemed jarring to some. But with the blossoming of “science,” new fields like psychology, phrenology, and physiology promising to take the mysteries of man and make them knowable, this new contest certainly seemed wholly appropriate to its organizers.
—Anna Derrell, The Women of Reform: Kansas Eugenics (2014)
Before breaking for Summer 2019, Movies on Chatham has one more film to research under our History of Medicine theme: The Eugenics Crusade (PBS, 2018).
This documentary presents a surprising part of US history unfamiliar to most Americans — a national preoccupation with eugenics from the late 19th century to its climax in the 1920s.
During the 20th century some very questionable acts — and some, outright heinous — were committed against humanity in the name of eugenics, both in the US and in other countries. In this overview article, we show current examples that may fit within the eugenics concept. The question is, is eugenics alive and well in the US today? You be the judge.
Eugenics Is the Science of Selective Breeding Applied to Humans
A definition first. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2019), “Eugenics,” which means “well born,” applies the science of selective breeding to human populations, to enhance human genetic makeup.
Next, a little background. In 1859, British scientist Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species shook up the world of science, with its highly controversial theory of evolution by natural selection.1
In experiments testing Darwin’s theory, new variations in traits of organisms were shown to arise spontaneously, making the organism more able to survive.
Gregor Mendel, the founder of the modern science of genetics, discovered that gene mutation is the source of variation in traits, and offered a statistical method for analyzing the inheritance of new mutations (Nirenberg, 2019).
It didn’t take long for Darwin’s cousin Sir Francis Galton to suggest that this concept of selective breeding, which had been tested only with plants and fruit flies, could be applied to humans to produce offspring with improved characteristics.
Galton’s ideas quickly overcame geography, and the newly-coined term, eugenics, crossed the Atlantic to American biologist Charles Davenport. Davenport soon founded the Eugenics Records Office (which later became the Department of Genetics) in 1910 in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, NY. This timeline is a whirlwind for a new field of science.
Eugenics in America Took a Turn Down the Wrong Path
Once eugenics caught a foothold in America, enthusiasm for its potential applications grew among the elite class. Then it was a only matter of time before eugenics crossed paths with class discrimination, racism, and immigration policy.
Laws were passed to control immigration, and to allow forced sterilization of people that were deemed unfit to breed for a host of reasons: race, poverty, illiteracy, promiscuity, disability/special needs . . . Eugenics in America was widespread in its appeal, and a sampling of its supporters is listed at the end of this article.
And, Adolf Hitler Was Paying Attention!
It is from the eugenics movement in the United States that Adolf Hitler got his ideas. In his book Mein Kampf (My Fight) (Hitler & Johnson, 1941), he referred to the origin of eugenics when he described his own political ideology. Hitler’s disturbing words in translation from German to English:
There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.
Hitler’s efforts to apply eugenics theory to create a master Aryan race resulted in the death of six million Jewish people. Victims by additional millions included Slavs, Poles, and people with any form of special needs or disabilities — all viewed by the Nazis as human weeds to pull out.
Because eugenics had become synonymous with Adolf Hitler, American fascination with eugenics experienced an almost immediate shutdown. Closure of this science was so complete that most 21st century Americans are oblivious to its existence in the country. Lest history be allowed to repeat itself, it is important to shed light on the US eugenics movement and its ripple effects.
After a dormancy of several decades, ideas of selective breeding are waking up under other identities. Mankind is venturing back into the promises of eugenics in many ways, such as pre-pregnancy and prenatal screening, genetic testing, infertility technologies, and genetic engineering.
Pre-Pregnancy and Prenatal Screening to Prevent Birth Defects — Cultural Interpretations
Some diseases are inherited and prevalent in particular populations, such as the debilitating Tay–Sachs disease in Jewish populations (JScreen editors, 2019). Therefore, before embarking on romantic relationships, potential Jewish couples, more often orthodox Jews, undergo screening for such diseases.
If both man and woman are revealed to be carriers of one or more genetic defects, the relationship is usually not pursued. This is helping phase out incurable Tay-Sachs and at least 20 other known birth defects (Rochman, 2017).
In Iceland, Down syndrome has all but disappeared due to prenatal screening that detects markers for the extra chromosome 21 in utero. Almost 100% of Icelandic women who test positive choose to terminate the pregnancy.
Inaccurate screening is the cause for the 1-2 Icelandic babies born each year with Down syndrome. With a Down syndrome termination rate of 67%, the US is not far behind Iceland.
An Icelandic hospital counselor expresses how her country perceives abortion compared to some Americans, in a revealing interview by CBS News correspondent Elaine Quijano (Quinones & Lajka, 2017). When the counselor showed her a prayer card inscribed with the date and tiny footprints of a fetus that was terminated, Quijano commented,
In America, I think some people would be confused about people calling this ‘our child,’ saying a prayer or saying goodbye or having a priest come in — because to them abortion is murder.
The counselor responded,
We don’t look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication. … preventing suffering for the child and for the family. And I think that is more right than seeing it as a murder — that’s so black and white. Life isn’t black and white. Life is grey.
Interestingly, in Israel, any red flag from prenatal screening can result in legal abortion, thus the high number performed. According to Israeli historian Rakefet Zalashik (Feldman, 2009),
Israel is a superpower in terms of pre-pregnancy tests and abortions. . . .
Abortions are performed here on the slightest pretext, including [correctable] aesthetic flaws such as a cleft palate. The notion that there are some babies that shouldn’t be born is part of the eugenic philosophy.
Zalashik’s research on the history of psychiatry in Palestine reports that these traces of the eugenic viewpoint are still found within the Israeli medical system.2
Indeed, she claims in her 2008 book, Ad Nefesh [“To the soul,” in English]: Refugees, Immigrants, Newcomers and the Israeli Psychiatric Establishment (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, in Hebrew), that the eugenics-based concept of ‘social engineering’ was part of the psychiatric mainstream here from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Consequences of In Vitro Fertilization
The science of in vitro fertilization (IVF) has happily made dreams come true for women who would not be able to conceive otherwise. According to the CDC, IVF accounts for approximately 1.7% of US babies (Centers for Disease Control, 2019).
The practice is not without concerns, however, which are related to eugenics and to both moral and political philosophy.
Pre-implantation inspection ensures that embryos with the best chance for survival are transferred into the mother. The number of embryos implanted is generally a decision between the mother and her doctor.
In Natalie Suleman’s case, she wanted only twins. But, in 2008, Dr. Michael Kamrava implanted 12 embryos for her. This same fertility specialist who had performed the implantations in all six of her previous IVF pregnancies, convinced her to implant six more embryos when he believed the six he had already implanted to be nonviable (Popescu, 2018).
It was hard to believe the octuplets all came from the same father — an unidentified sperm donor — and even harder to process that Ms. Suleman didn’t know she was having so many babies at once. But that’s what she says.
Her case and others raise deep concerns for the Catholic Church, which makes no allowances for those who would violate the sanctity of life. The problem is the fate of the embryos that are not viable or do not get implanted. Dr. John Zhang is making a difference in this perception with his innovative work in gene therapy (Cha, May 2018).
In 2015, Zhang stunned his scientific peers by transferring a genetically “abnormal” embryo to the womb of a woman who had run out of other options. Abnormal embryos — which appear to have the wrong number of chromosomes — are almost universally considered nonviable and discarded by other fertility doctors. The woman gave birth to a healthy baby girl, prompting clinics around the world to reevaluate their policies
While a marriage partner is often the best choice for sperm donation, anonymous sperm donors give women more control over their reproduction. Even so, with the exception of the US and Canada, countries around the world heavily regulate the number of children sperm donors can sire. The US and Canada have no regulation, and Asia is the most strict with 1-5 offspring allowed per donor. Europe is not far behind Asia in allowing only 10-25 offspring per donor.
Lack of regulation of sperm banks is an increasing concern in the field of fertility. According to Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), US guidelines suggest allowing only 25 pregnancies per donor per population area of 800,000. Yet, the guidelines are voluntary, and nobody appears to be keeping track. Shocking numbers of related children per donor are being reported (Dockterman, 2013).
Wendy Kramer, Director of DSR, says it is common for a donor to donate multiple vials a week over a number of years. One particular donor is responsible for 3000 vials that were released to would-be-mothers. The number of surviving pregnancies from that one donor is likely up in the thousands.
For one man to sire such a high number of offspring is contributing to the narrowing of humanity’s gene pool. Any biologist will tell you that is not a good thing for a species, because a wide diversity of genes is essential for species survival.
According to an article in The Washington Post (Cha, Sep 2018),
Thanks to mail-away DNA tests [e.g., 23andMe] and a proliferation of online registries, people conceived with donated sperm and eggs are increasingly connecting with their genetic relatives, forming a community with complex relationships and unique concerns about the US fertility industry. . . . many have discovered dozens of donor siblings, with one group approaching 200 members – enormous genetic families is without precedent in modern society.
In another form of eugenics, tight knit deaf communities actively look for sperm donors who are deaf in order to rapidly reproduce the deaf population. Savulescu (2002) says it is important to keep in mind that they do not see deafness as a disability, rather they see it as a cultural identity, and their sign language as a “sophisticated, unique form of communication.”
A deaf lesbian couple in the United States has deliberately created a deaf child. Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough used their own sperm donor, a deaf friend with five generations of deafness in his family.
Is Gene Therapy and Genetic Engineering the New Eugenics?
It appears that gene therapy is currently limited to preventing birth defects, syndromes, and diseases. Yet, since it gives people the potential for manipulating how the dice rolls with their offspring, its impact on eugenics is profound. Of course, it is not without numerous controversies: one is a socio-economic issue, and another is a matter of reproductive freedom.
First, genetic engineering will not be a cheap technology; and because of this, it may be limited to people who can afford it. This being the case, one class will be free of genetic defects, and the other will be left to address their genetic defects in other ways. This can have tremendous ramifications for society, including abortion (The wealthier class would not have to face the decision to terminate a pregnancy, because faulty embryos will just not get implanted). Hercher(2018) states this well:
Our discomfort around designer babies has always had to do with the fact that it makes the playing field less level — taking existing inequities and turning them into something inborn. If the use of pre-implantation testing grows, and we don’t address these disparities, we risk creating a society where some groups, because of culture or geography or poverty, bear a greater burden of genetic disease.
What could change society more profoundly than to take genetic disease — something that has always epitomized our shared humanity — and turn it into something that only happens to some people?
The other matter of reproductive freedom will be an emerging issue. Science will give both men and women more control over their reproductive capabilities, but how much freedom they have will depend on their country’s government. As with the issue of sperm donors, law will basically determine the direction for eugenics in its future restrictions on:
- medical consent over testing,
- forced sterilization,
- sperm donors,
- number of children (e.g., China’s one-child policy), and
- other issues as genetic engineering gets more sophisticated.
The website Genetic Generation (“Is eugenics happening today?”, 2015), states:
The most significant difference between modern genetic technologies, that some view as eugenic, and the historical use of eugenics is consent. Today, individuals pursue genetic testing by choice. An individual can never be forced into testing or be required to take an action, such as sterilization, based on the results of a genetic test.
Individuals differ in their views on genetic testing in relation to reproductive decision-making and possible eugenic motivations, but at least today parents have the choice to use the technology or not.
Eugenics is Coming Back Fast and Furious! We All Need to Understand Its Pros and Cons
Because all of these genetic engineering technologies and more are now possible, education and awareness that The Eugenics Crusade brings forth is necessary as we need to ask ourselves the following question (Rasko, 2018),
What are we to make of the new eugenics? Should we welcome or shun it, regulate or forbid it? Does the dream of a world that is free of disease and disability harbour a secret nightmare of social control and injustice? These are questions we can no longer afford to ignore.
The current state of reproduction research suggests that designer babies in terms of gender and characteristics will be possible someday. Should we choose IQ, athleticism, artistic talent, and competitive energy over morals and good character? If we do, humanity will suffer in the long run.
Nature does not appear to mind our tinkering to phase out diseases, syndromes, and birth defects. Yet, if genetic engineering, or quite simply, eugenics, goes beyond those purposes, unintended consequences are all but guaranteed.
The pursuit of complete control of reproduction to achieve the best combination of gene pools is apparent, and already exhibits unintended outcomes — the enormous genetic families of thousands is an example. In her opinion article in The New York Times (2014), Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, urges caution.
We Can Never Predict Who Will Rise to Ignite a Spark
As societies, let’s please not lose sight of what it means to be truly, and uniquely, human. While every single human life has value, it is a spontaneous surprise when a man or woman rises to elevate the human race to higher levels of achievement. It is highly doubtful that these random people were the hoped-for, and well-designed, by-products of practiced eugenics:
- Albert Einstein, for his IQ,
- Serena Williams, for her athletic prowess, or
- Michelangelo, for his artistic flair or
- Steve Jobs, for his forward thinking.
All of these high achievers benefited from a combination of nature and nurture, and opportunity. We can never predict who will rise to ignite a spark that will propel humankind upward and forward to better places, so it’s wise not to overplay nature.
Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.
—Pearl Buck, American Pulitzer Prize-winning Author
… the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.
—Hubert Humphrey, US Vice President from 1965-1969
Best Wishes to You in Your Loyalty to Our Mission
Thank you, as always, for staying on this journey with us as we discover films of the past and present, and learn from what they have to teach us about our world. We’ll be back with big plans in September.
Until then, we wish you a great summer filled with sunshine, happy days outdoors, and of course, lots of movies!
With love from the Movies on Chatham team.
1 Natural Selection: Individuals best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce. This procedure in addition to other fertility treatments have increased the number of multiple births.
2 In the 1930s, many Jewish psychiatrists subscribed to the German conception of Jews as a race.
Genetic engineering is the deliberate modification of the characteristics of an organism by manipulating its genetic material.
Gene therapy is the transplantation of normal genes into cells in place of missing or defective ones in order to correct genetic disorders.
Notes on Supporters of the US Eugenic Movement in the Early 20th Century
Eugenics itself was not a delusion, but a scientific inquiry. This complex scientific theory in its early stages of development should have been publicly discussed and debated, but instead was quickly interpreted by the general population and used as a basis for government and commercial enterprise and public policy.
Coming about at a time of enormous discovery at the turn of the century when innovation was exploding around the world, the idealistic promises of eugenics may have led intelligent people, always susceptible to cognitive dissonance and mass delusion, to easily and permissibly discuss the worth of other people’s lives.
At the very least, public opinion influenced the views of these smart, highly-successful people, some with ideas that were more altruistic than others.
- Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)
—U.S. President from 1901 to 1909
Referring to criminals and the “feeble-minded,” Roosevelt wrote in a letter to the aforementioned biologist/eugenicist Charles Davenport: “society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind.”
- Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)
—Patented the telephone in 1876
Bell actively involved himself in the field of eugenics, helping lead the first and second International Conference of Eugenics, in 1912 and 1921 respectively, and serving as honorary President for the latter. From the History Channel editors (2018),
“He encouraged taking measures to prevent the proliferation of the deaf . . .”
“Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf; remove them.”
Note that both Bell’s mother and his wife were deaf albeit from childhood illnesses. Bell devoted much of his life to teaching the deaf, and proving they could benefit from amplification to learn spoken language.
- Helen Keller (1880-1968)
—Inspirational deaf/blind activist
Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world.
Another quote credited to Keller,
It is the possibility of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature,
Further, that allowing a “defective” child to die was simply a “weeding of the human garden that shows a sincere love of true life.”
- Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
—Prime Minister of England 1940-1945, and 1951-1955
He promoted labor camps for the “mentally defectives.”
The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes…constitutes a national and race danger which is impossible to exaggerate.
- Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
—Pioneer of birth control, and founder of what is now Planned Parenthood
“… birth control is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit [and of] preventing the birth of defectives.”
Abortion activists would wholeheartedly agree with Sanger’s assertion that every child should be a wanted child.
- George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
We should find ourselves committed to killing a great many people whom we now leave living, and to leave living a great many people whom we at present kill. . . .
A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.
- Jacques Cousteau (1910 – 1997)
—French explorer and oceanographer
World population must be stabilized and to do that we must eliminate 350,000 people per day. This is so horrible to contemplate that we shouldn’t even say it. But the general situation in which we are involved is lamentable.
- John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943)
—Medical doctor and health activist
Known for putting Kellogg’s cereal on breakfast tables all over America, Kellogg well known in the field of eugenics,
Long before the race reaches the state of universal incompetency, the impending danger will be appreciated … and, through eugenics and euthenics, the mental soundness of the race will be saved.
- Robert Foster Kennedy (1884-1952)
—Medical doctor, neurologist
“I am in favor of euthanasia for those hopeless ones who should never have been born-Nature’s mistakes.”
- Herbert Hoover (1874-1964)
—U.S. President from 1929-1933
“There shall be no child in America that had not the complete birthright of a sound mind in a sound body.”
- Linus Pauling (1901-1994)
—Nobel Prize-winning chemist
Pauling believed that carriers of genetic defects should not procreate.
It’s alright for her [a mother] to be allowed to determine the extent to which she will suffer, but she should not be allowed to produce a child who will suffer. This is immoral. It is wrong to produce a little black child who will lead a life of suffering. I would say this is not racism. I advocate the very same thing to … all kinds who carry these abnormal genes.
- Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940)
Eugenics was so pervasive during Fitzgerald’s time that he incorporated its concept into his 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby (Lapore, 2010).
‘Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?’
‘Why, no,’ I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
‘Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.’
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