19 Sep 2016

Adam Cohen: the origins of eugenics

From Nine To Noon, 9:09 am on 19 September 2016
Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921

Kathryn Ryan talks to Time magazine writer and author Adam Cohen about the origins of eugenics. In his book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, he lays out the history of American eugenics and its occasionally surprising proponents - which include several of the country's most famous presidents and Supreme Court justices. What's more, he says eugenics is still happening today.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

What is the origin of eugenics?

It actually began in England and the word eugenics was coined by Francis Gallton, who was a half cousin of Charles Darwin and it kind of followed in some of the Darwinian traditions. Darwin had observed survival of the fittest in the natural world and Francis Carlton thought humans could actually take nature into their own hands by doing their own survival of the fittest; choosing who could reproduce and encouraging them to reproduce and choosing who should not reproduce and discouraging them. The idea was to use this control over who was born to create a better race of humanity.

Would people be surprised to hear who some of the proponents were?

Absolutely. Here in the United States, it was some of our finest people. Theodore Roosevelt, the great, progressive president, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor and the presidents of Harvard and Stanford universities. Many socialists and progressive thinkers in England as well. It was actually a very popular, progressive movement, supported by a lot of the elites.

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood in the States I think was another. What was the reasoning though, of their advocacy of eugenics and their concept of eugenics?

The progressives were doing something that they considered to be progressive, which was looking at the advances of technology and science in this case and saying, how can we harness this scientific advancement for the betterment of humanity? They believed in using progress, they also believed in using government, so they thought, why not have government begin to use the genetic science to make a better society? So in some ways this sounded like a progressive idea, but of course, this was progressivism that really went off the rails.

In the United States, eugenics drove two major legal changes. What were they?

There were concerns about the threat to the nation from without, and threat to the nation from within. Eugenicists believed immigrants were bringing in bad genes and believed that certain nationalities had better genes than others.

In particular at that time in the 1920’s, they were worried about Italians, Eastern European Jews and Asians, who they thought were genetically less fit. The eugenicists were actually the driving force behind the adoption of the Immigration Act of 1924, which radically changed American immigration. It closed the door to those countries, Italy, Eastern Europe and Asia and opened the door more to Eastern Europe, so that the threat from without.

The threat from within, they were worried about the people who were already in the United States who would be bringing down the gene pool. They were worried about poor, disabled people, the deaf, the blind… and also in particular what they called the feeble-minded. They were afraid that the feeble-minded were taking over the country and they wanted to use eugenicists law to stop that.

And indeed they did. What happened with the legalisation of forced sterilisation? How did this come about?

The United States were actually the leaders in that, well before Nazi Germany. Louisiana in 1907 was the first state to pass eugenics sterilisation law and a bunch of states followed quickly there on. The idea was that people who fit into various categories that were listed in the statute - the deaf, the blind, the disabled, in some cases the alcoholic and even the indolent or the poor. So poor people were thought to be genetically inferior and could be sterilised. And then of course, the feeble-minded, which was this large amorphous category, that was used to label all sorts of people who the people in charge didn’t like. A lot of people were designated in these categories and a lot of people were sterilised.

Was there any political or media debate around this or was it just the groupthink of the time?

It’s surprising to me how much it was the groupthink of the time. There was widespread support in the medical community, widespread support from geneticists themselves, widespread support in the media… one of the few groups in the United States who opposed it were Catholics, and Catholics were reliably the ones who would show up at legislatures - nuns, priests, Catholic laypeople - to oppose genetic sterilisation bills and it was really for two reasons. One was the traditional Catholic reverence for the reproductive cycle, but the other was the Catholics believed that people should be judged on their inner qualities, their spiritual qualities and they didn’t agree with eugenicists that people should be judged by physical attributes that may or may not be designated fit or unfit. But other than the Catholics and the Catholic organisations, there was not a lot of opposition.