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12 July 2018

The Era of Eugenics: When Pseudoscience Became Law

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On July 14, 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime enacted the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, exactly on the same day that the founding of new political parties was prohibited, thereby formally converting Germany into a dictatorship. The new law authorized the forced sterilization of all those people who suffered from mental or neurological disorders, blindness, deafness, deformities or alcoholism. As a result, more than 400,000 people would be sterilized, just among the German Aryan citizens —the Jews and other ethnic peoples would simply be exterminated in the concentration camps.

Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921. Source: Wikimedia

The tragedy of the Nazi genocide can divert attention from the true origins of the racial hygiene policies that were not only implemented in the Germany of the Third Reich, but also in many other countries; in fact, the Nazi legislation was directly inspired by the American model.

The origin of all this goes back to 1883, when the British polymath Francis Galton coined the term eugenics to designate the practices aimed at increasing the genetic quality of the human species. Galton claimed to base his ideas on the theories of his relative, Charles Darwin, to propose that promoting the offspring of the “superior strains or races” would produce “men of a high type,” without genetic defects.

Improve the genetic repertoire of the human

Although Darwin himself had opposed this interpretation of his evolutionary doctrine, Galton’s ideas caught the interest of much of the scientific community, which began to discuss the possibility of promoting various techniques to improve the genetic repertoire of the human population as a contribution to the common good. In fact, “some aspects of eugenics were strongly linked to progressive and leftist movements,” epidemiologist and eugenics researcher Nicole Novak of the University of Iowa (USA) tells OpenMind.

Francis Galton coined the term eugenics. Source: National Portrait Gallery

Thus, it was not uncommon to find progressive intellectuals like the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw or the biologist and socialist writer H. G. Wells among the promoters of eugenics. Prominent politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt or Winston Churchill were also defenders of this cause. Ruth Clifford Engs, Emeritus Professor at Indiana University (USA) and author of Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood, 2005) explains to OpenMind that: “The eugenics movement was primarily accepted by the middle class and intellectuals for improving the health and vitality of the nation and its people. If you were an educated person in English or Germanic speaking nations, eugenics was considered the best way of improving the health of the population.”

However, eugenics had two faces, or two versions. The so-called “positive” version sought to promote health through hygiene, exercise, proper nutrition and sexual health. According to Engs, men and women were encouraged to marry healthy people and take care of their children’s health. “During the time of the eugenics movement, France, Spain, the UK, most of Canada, and Latin America fostered positive eugenics,” summarizes the expert.

However, not all the measures inspired by positive eugenics were so benign. Under its rubric, laws were enforced that required sexual health certificates to grant a marriage license, or justified persecutions of groups considered undesirable. Due to its diversity of measures, eugenics became what we would now call a transversal policy. “Many eugenic policies, like environmental improvement, better housing and schooling, appealed to the left, while immigration restriction and racial segregation policies appealed to the right,” indicates Philippa Levine, historian of eugenics the University of Texas (USA) and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Eugenics Protest circa in 1971. Credit: Southern Studies Institute

The Catholic eugenics and negative eugenics

A paradigmatic example of this perversion was the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, which imposed a policy of “environmentally-related Catholic eugenics,” summarizes the historian Ricardo Campos, of the Superior Council of Scientific Research, to OpenMind. In other words, the focus was not on the racial question, but on the upbringing of children in values ​​acceptable to the regime. Under this policy, the regime launched a crackdown against its political enemies, whose most tragic face was the forced separation of some 30,000 children from their mothers to “tear them away from the bad maternal influences and prevent Marxism,” says Campos.

But even more atrocious was the practice of negative eugenics. In 1907, the first law was passed in Indiana (USA) to “prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” The mandatory sterilization of people considered inept was spread across countries such as Japan, Australia and parts of Canada. But according to Levine, the two regions of the world that most firmly supported negative eugenics were Scandinavia and the US.

Specifically, the USA was a pioneer in these measures: in 1914, twelve states already had mandatory sterilization laws that affected “the mentally and physically disabled and mentally ill, criminals, sexual offenders, and sometimes homosexuals,” says Engs. In some cases these people were also admitted to institutions. The push by Harry Laughlin, superintendent of the Office of Eugenics Records, which in 1922 developed a prototype law to serve as a model, was decisive in this drive; 18 other states soon followed suit.

A Lebensborn birth house in Nazi Germany, created for raising the birth rate of “Aryan” children. Source: German Federal Archives

Contests were held where the “fitter families” were awarded prizes; eugenics also triumphed at fairs, where posters with slogans such as “some people are born to be a burden on the rest” were displayed. The eugenics experience of California was especially prominent and, along with Laughlin’s law, inspired the Nazis to draft their 1933 regulation, which in turn was praised by notable American eugenicists. “The US and Nazi Germany had the most sterilizations,” says Engs. In the US it is estimated that about 60,000 people were sterilized.

It was its association with the Nazi regime that ended up dethroning eugenics in the US. The scientific community began to brand it as pseudoscience, since many of the features it sought to suppress were not clearly heritable. However, some of those state laws would not be repealed until the 1970s. But when it comes to judging this sinister episode in the history of the US and other countries, Engs nevertheless notes one issue not to lose sight of: “Hitler did not practice eugenics, he practiced genocide.”


Javier Yanes


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