Cursed by Eugenics

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Eugenics was not just gassy theories. Impressed by the pseudo science, many U.S. states enacted laws requiring the sterilization of those held in custody who were deemed to suffer from hereditary defects. In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court heard an appeal of Virginia's decision in Buck v. Bell to sterilize Carrie Buck, an institutionalized 17-year-old whom the state had decreed a "moral imbecile," the daughter of a "feebleminded" mother and the mother herself of a daughter who was found to be, at age seven months, subnormal in intelligence. The court, by an 8-to-1 vote, rejected Buck's appeal. In his majority opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes," and concluded, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Nowhere, of course, were eugenic theories more enthusiastically codified into binding state doctrine than in Nazi Germany. In 1933 Adolf Hitler's government adopted the Eugenic Sterilization Law. Formulated by the Reich Ministry of the Interior, this edict ordered the compulsory sterilization of all German citizens--not simply those in custody or institutions--who displayed symptoms of a number of presumptively hereditary afflictions, including blindness, schizophrenia and offensive physical deformities. Government officials countered potential objections about the cruelty of this measure by asserting that personal sacrifices would serve the common weal. "We go beyond neighborly love," said one. "We extend it to future generations. Therein lies the high ethical value and justification of the law." As Kevles notes, the Nazis' draconian eugenics program did not originally encompass the anti-Semitism that later so rabidly characterized the Third Reich. But as Hitler and his regime turned ever more fiercely against the Jews, the sterilization of "undesirables" escalated into genocide, a horrifying realization of Francis Galton's vision of the world biologically cleansed according to one group's idea of human improvement.

Eugenics never recovered from the news of what had been carried out under its banner in Hitler's Germany. In truth, a number of people--including G.K. Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Walter Lippmann and Clarence Darrow--had ridiculed and debunked eugenic theories well before the horrors of the Holocaust occurred and became widely known.

And the flaws, so obvious to us now, in the eugenicists' thinking--starting but by no means ending with their assumption of the immutable heritability of character and the attribution of complex human traits to simple Mendelian genes--did spur, among scientists who recognized the errors, valuable research in the actual science of human genetics. They were wrong, with unintended consequences for millions of people. But the legacy of the eugenicists may be instructive. The next time you hear someone promoting the scientific improvement of the human race, think of them.

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