Eugenics, Anyone?

Until recently it has been, not a secret, but a fact kept carefully closeted, that the countries that consider themselves the most advanced and civilized had for many years been sterilizing “undesirable” people, or taking their children away from them, in order to improve the “race.” This was going on in the United States until 1973.

The matter gained renewed public attention in August when the Swedish press revealed that between 1935 and 1976 more than 60,000 people in Sweden were sterilized against their will, or in ignorance of what was being done to them. These were mentally or physically handicapped people, or those congenitally ill, or socially “undesirable” women who had “too many” children and were considered to be living “bad lives.” Among them, at least in the earlier years of the program, were Gypsies, vagabonds, and people who were not “of pure Swedish race” (as that race was supposed to look, according to a series of engraved plates produced at the Institute of Racial Biology in Uppsala in 1922).

However, Sweden should not be singled out. The same thing was going on in other Nordic countries, as well as in Switzerland, France, Britain, Japan, the United States, and elsewhere. In the United States, the American Eugenics Society, founded in 1921, called for sterilization of 10 percent of the American population in order to prevent “the suicide of the white race.” In 1927, in rejecting a suit against the state of Virginia on behalf of a white woman of eighteen who had been forcibly sterilized in a Virginia asylum, the Supreme Court ruled that rather than eventually having to execute criminals born of the mentally defective, or see their children die of want, it was better for the state to prevent their birth.

Forcible sterilizations were banned by the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare only in 1973, following Senate hearings chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy, which revealed that in 1972 alone some sixteen thousand men and eight thousand women had been sterilized under existing federal programs.

There have been two rationales for such policies. One claims to protect the well-being of the sterilized person and his or her offspring. Sterilization is requested by the person’s family or by doctors or institutional authorities who find that the person is incapable of responsible choice with respect to bearing children, or would be incapable of caring for offspring. In Britain, France, and most other countries, these interventions have been made under some system of ethical and legal oversight, at least in principle. In France this September a weekly magazine caused a stir with an article estimating that some fifteen thousand mentally handicapped people had been sterilized in recent years. Senior ministers promised an inquiry and asked the inspector general of social services to ascertain whether new measures were needed to protect people’s rights in such matters.

The other rationale is the theory for improving mankind proposed by a cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton (1822-1911), and based on Darwin’s…

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