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A Terrible Legacy
June 14, 2011 8:15 AM   Subscribe

A Terrible Legacy More than 60,000 Americans were sterilised, many against their will, as part of a eugenics movement that finished in 1979, aimed at keeping the poor and mentally ill from having children. Now, decades on, one state is considering compensation.
posted by modernnomad (24 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
"...women deemed sexual deviants, homosexual men, poor people on welfare, people who were mentally ill or suffered from epilepsy. African Americans and Hispanic Americans were disproportionately targeted in some states."

Hmmm, same groups whose civil rights are still constantly under attack even today. I guess we've made some progress, but it's sobering to consider how many people in the US would seriously not mind if eugenics programs were re-instated.
posted by hermitosis at 8:31 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Winston-Salem Journal put together a great set of stories and resources on this a few years back, found here. One of the more interesting findings there is how North Carolina came to the sterilization process a little later than some other states, and also how there was clearly a shift at some point from just looking for people who were generally "unfit" to more specifically looking along racial lines. We might think of one overall eugenics movement, but it really was more a combination of different motives of different groups.

There's also this three-part article on the history of the eugenics movement in America after WWII, from the Independent Weekly. You can find an interview with the author Kevin Begos (who worked on the Winston-Salem research above too) about the topic at NC public radio.

Another great eugenics resource is the Image archive on the American eugenics movement.
posted by bizzyb at 8:41 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Were they discontinued because they were determined to be evil or because they were determined to not work?
posted by DU at 8:41 AM on June 14, 2011


The victims were criminals and juvenile delinquents, women deemed sexual deviants, homosexual men, poor people on welfare, people who were mentally ill or suffered from epilepsy.
(emphasis mine)

Uh, how does sterilizing a group of people who would seem to be least likely to procreate help anything? Or is it just because you can use it as a "punishment"?
posted by jillithd at 8:49 AM on June 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


I think the idea is they are married/underage men engaging in "homosexual behaviors". Like a mental disease.
posted by DU at 8:53 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


A MeFi member who wishes to remain anonymous because he works for the agency responsible for maintaining the records of the North Carolina Eugenics Commission just sent me a link through memail that connects to the publicly available records of the Commission.
posted by modernnomad at 8:58 AM on June 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


Edwin Black wrote a pretty thoroughly researched book on this called War Against the Weak (which apparently has also been made into a movie). I started reading it years ago and while it's pretty dense, it also tells a really compelling and maddening story of an entire scientific community turning into this monstrous, evil bureaucracy.

I'll pick the book up again when I feel like my blood ain't angered up enough by normal everyday events.
posted by Maaik at 9:20 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Among the article's noted sterilization petitions was A 16-year-old girl who had earlier been committed to a state institution for "sexual delinquency" and whose aunt "signed consent". Why is it I've never heard of state institutions for sexual deviancy? It sounds like one of the better institutions to get stuck in.
(Yeah, yeah, I realize it more likely indicates a standard state institution for warehousing undesirables, and that this particular girl was sent for that reason, but that's not how it struck me at first reading.)
posted by notashroom at 9:22 AM on June 14, 2011


a really compelling and maddening story of an entire scientific community turning into this monstrous, evil bureaucracy.

Truth. Some of the most respected and progressive people and institutions in the world were pretty much on board with eugenics. The Rockefeller Foundation, Margaret Sanger, The League of Women Voters, presidents of Wharton and Stanford, basically anyone who thought Science! was cool. It wasn't until the details of the Holocaust came out that society stepped away from it, and it took decades before we forgot that anyone interesting had ever considered it to be a good idea.
posted by valkyryn at 9:26 AM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, does the sterilization of homosexual men, married or otherwise, or men engaging in homosex, not indicate that decades ago people recognized there was likely some genetic component to homosexuality? Otherwise, what point could there be beyond the punishment jillithd theorized?

Argh, regardless, the whole subject of eugenics just tends to make me furious at the hubris of those who assumed the authority to make these laws, decisions, and medical procedures.
posted by notashroom at 9:27 AM on June 14, 2011


Maaik: Edwin Black wrote a pretty thoroughly researched book on this called War Against the Weak

+1

great book.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:42 AM on June 14, 2011


Also, does the sterilization of homosexual men, married or otherwise, or men engaging in homosex, not indicate that decades ago people recognized there was likely some genetic component to homosexuality?

That may have been a logical implication, but no one really seems to have thought that. They sterilized "promiscuous" women too, and a lot of the people sterilized were just poor. A big focus of the program was not just improving society's gene pool but preventing the birth of children in less than optimal circumstances, i.e. where they'd become a "burden" on society. Fewer poor kids, fewer mouths to feed, etc.

Look, the whole thing wasn't that well thought out beyond a "We don't like those people, let's make sure they don't have kids" level. Which isn't exactly punishment, but isn't exactly scientific either. Even if the Nazis hadn't made the whole thing completely socially unacceptable, the project's scientific grounding was never all that strong and was based on now depreciated concepts of how genetics works.
posted by valkyryn at 9:45 AM on June 14, 2011


The state wasn't necessarily interested in performing vasectomies on homosexual men, but preventing them from engaging in deviancy. Castration falls under the broad umbrella of sterilization programs, as does orchidectomy, the amputation of all male genital organs. The latter was rare but there is at least one documented case. Then again, I'm pretty sure the person in question was a convicted child molester.

Coerced sterilization also happened to American Indian women on reservations, where it was perpetrated by the federal government who runs Indian Health Services.

One more fun fact, these programs were implemented before the invention of antibiotics. A tubal ligation *without* antibiotics was a very risky surgery, so in addition to sentencing a woman to sterilization the state was also handing her a 1 in 4 (...could be 1 in 3, can't remember for sure) death chance.

For further academic reading I highly recommend Breeding Contempt by Mark Largent. I took half a class with him in college (it was my last semester and there was a lot of homework so I dropped it even though it was fascinating) and he has a wealth of knowledge on the history of american eugenics.
posted by Tesseractive at 10:28 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, women in Puerto Rico.
posted by vitabellosi at 10:42 AM on June 14, 2011


Also, does the sterilization of homosexual men, married or otherwise, or men engaging in homosex, not indicate that decades ago people recognized there was likely some genetic component to homosexuality?

The current presumption that genetic = fine-and-dandy was not always in place. Arguably the reason it is in place now is that eugenics has fallen out of favour, so we no longer believe that we can materially alter such things; people generally believe that morality only applies in areas where the human will has scope to act.

Given that gene therapies and suchlike are likely to become more plausible in the next century or so, I sincerely hope that homosexuality isn't genetic. If it is, liberals' insistence that we're to be tolerated simply because we're wired that way will start to seem awfully short-sighted, and the use of belief in a genetic basis for homosexuality as some kind of political shibboleth for humanity and acceptance will be sorely tested.
posted by Acheman at 10:44 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Hmmm, same groups whose civil rights are still constantly under attack even today. I guess we've made some progress, but it's sobering to consider how many people in the US would seriously not mind if eugenics programs were re-instated.

A lot of science fiction writers and fans for a start. I've really gotten tired of seeing SF scenarios that include ideas that society is weakened or collapses because of a failure to perform eugenics.

Yet people still seem to think "The Marching Morons" has a message about today's society, and not the prejudices of the writer.
posted by happyroach at 10:47 AM on June 14, 2011


happyroach, I totally agree. It's why despite having funny jokes, Idiocracy really depresses me. Its basic thesis is that poor people are dumb and have too many children, and this will ruin America. Ffffffffffff.
posted by Tesseractive at 11:13 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have an old eugenics book at home. It's fascinatingly ugly to leaf through it. Not sure how old it is, but it's old, and kind of beat up (cover is falling apart). Black cover, fancy lettering saying simply "Eugenics". Lots of hogwash inside explaining how SCIENCE will make us all better people if we just weed out those bad genes. It's like a train wreck - you know it's wrong but you want to keep looking out of morbid curiosity.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:02 PM on June 14, 2011


That may have been a logical implication, but no one really seems to have thought that. They sterilized "promiscuous" women too, and a lot of the people sterilized were just poor. A big focus of the program was not just improving society's gene pool but preventing the birth of children in less than optimal circumstances, i.e. where they'd become a "burden" on society. Fewer poor kids, fewer mouths to feed, etc.

Except, actually, there was a whole big Calvinist-style concept that genetics (or "breeding" -- gerund, not verb) was a primary causal factor of poverty, that was popular in the pro-eugenics crowd. So, not just "reduce this burden on society that results from people having children they can't feed and clothe," but "prevent society becoming cluttered with more of these poor people, who will inevitably produce yet more poor people, because it's in their genes."

I guess in recalling and applying that here, I undid whatever I might have thought could have been extracted of value from the idea that nearly a hundred years ago people may have thought there was a genetic basis to (male, of course) homosexuality.

As Acheman said, The current presumption that genetic = fine-and-dandy was not always in place. Arguably the reason it is in place now is that eugenics has fallen out of favour, so we no longer believe that we can materially alter such things; people generally believe that morality only applies in areas where the human will has scope to act. If poverty could be (and was) thought to be largely genetic and still indicative of morality (again with the Calvinism!), there's nothing to be gained from extrapolating that they may have considered homosexuality to have a genetic basis.
posted by notashroom at 2:13 PM on June 14, 2011


If poverty could be (and was) thought to be largely genetic and still indicative of morality (again with the Calvinism!), there's nothing to be gained from extrapolating that they may have considered homosexuality to have a genetic basis.

I think you're right with the "nothing to be gained" conclusion, but I really want to challenge your linkage of that with how we think about genetics. You're right "breeding" was a topic of interest, but counter-intuitively, it referred to environmental causes like upbringing as much as it did to anything else. Poor people were likely to communicate their poor habits and morals to their kids, not via genetics--the concept really wasn't very well developed--but by example and acculturation. "Breeding" captured the whole nature/nurture composite that goes into making people what they are.
posted by valkyryn at 5:40 PM on June 14, 2011


One curious (and scary) aspect of the eugenics movement was how it was essentially a progressive and scientific set of propositions, enforced by the state. Its proponents were academics, scientists and activists, and the movement took root in a variety of settings, including Northern states like Vermont and Western states like Oregon. Forcible sterilization of the "unfit" was upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1927 decision Buck v. Bell.

Which goes to show, I suppose, that the most revered of our public institutions -- science, medicine, the law -- can all, at once, get it wrong. Or, maybe, that human perfectibility is a dangerous and enduring idea.
posted by slab_lizard at 10:17 PM on June 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Violent criminals should be sterilized, for eugenic reasons, for punishment and as a humane alternative to the death penalty (which also removes their genes from the gene pool). It's bizarre that the death penalty still exists, but society balks at the notion of sterilizing a rapist or a murderer prior to their release.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 10:41 PM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


One curious (and scary) aspect of the eugenics movement was how it was essentially a progressive and scientific set of propositions, enforced by the state.

I think it's also interesting that one of the earliest voices of protest was actually the Catholic Church. Rome came out solidly against the eugenics in general and forced sterilization in particular in 1930 (down around paragraph 66-71). The reasoning is obviously theological, but it's there. The Protestant take was a bit more confused and not nearly as organized (no surprise there), and a lot of the more progressive groups like the mainline Presbyterians were at least mildly in favor. Great article here on Protestants and eugenics in the early 20th century.
posted by valkyryn at 4:59 AM on June 15, 2011




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