History of Eugenics: Principles and Policies
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Published: Mon, 11 Jun 2018
Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population. While eugenic principles have been practiced as far back as ancient Greece, it was in 1883 that Francis Galton (1822-1911) systematized these ideas and practices based on statistical understanding of heredity, and new knowledge about the evolution of human and animals provided by the theory of his cousin, Charles Darwin. This eugenics movement spread from the United Kingdom to many countries, including the United States, Germany, and other European countries. In this period, eugenic ideas were espoused across the political spectrum. Consequently, many countries adopted eugenic policies meant to improve the genetic stock of their countries. Such programs often included both “positive” measures, such as encouraging individuals deemed particularly “fit” to reproduce, and “negative” measures such as marriage prohibitions and forced sterilization of people deemed unfit for reproduction. People deemed unfit to reproduce often included people with mental or physical disabilities, people who scored in the low ranges of different IQ tests, criminals and deviants, and members of disfavored minority groups.
Eugenic policies were first implemented in the early 1900s in the United States. It also took root in France, Germany, and Great Britain. Later, in the 1920s and 30s, the eugenic policy of sterilizing certain mental patients was implemented in other countries, including Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Sweden.
In the decades following World War II, with the institution of human rights, many countries gradually abandoned eugenics policies, although some Western countries, among them the United States, continued to carry out forced sterilizations
Eugenics Policies in the United States
State laws were written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to prohibit marriage and force sterilization of the mentally ill in order to prevent the “passing on” of mental illness to the next generation. These laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 (Buck vs. Bell) and were not abolished until the mid-20th century.
In the Buck vs. Bell decision of May 2, 1927, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Virginia statute that provided for the eugenic sterilization for people considered genetically unfit. Upholding Virginia’s sterilization statute provided the green light for similar laws in 30 states, under which an estimated 65,000 Americans were sterilized without their own consent or that of a family member.
The plaintiff of the case, Carrie Buck, and her mother Emma, had been committed to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble Minded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Carrie and Emma were both judged to be “feebleminded” and promiscuous, primarily because they had both had borne children out of wedlock. Carrie’s child, Vivian, was judged to be “feebleminded” at seven months of age based on the foggy impression of a nurse who had been handed a cranky baby without toys. Hence, three generations of “imbeciles” became the “perfect” family for Virginia officials to use as a test case in favor of the eugenic sterilization law enacted in 1924.
Upon reviewing the case, the Supreme Court concurred “that Carrie Buck is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization”
Eugenics Policies in Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler was well known for eugenics programs which attempted to maintain a “pure” Aryan race through a series of programs that ran under the banner of racial hygiene. Among other activities, the Nazis performed extensive experimentation on live human beings to test their genetic theories. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazi regime used forced sterilization on hundreds of thousands of people whom they viewed as mentally ill, an estimated 400,000 between 1934 and 1937.
The Nazis went further, however, murdering tens of thousands of the institutionalized disabled through compulsory “euthanasia” programs such as Aktion T4. They used gas chambers and lethal injections to murder their victims.
In the end, the Nazi program to cleanse the “genetically sick” was just a prelude to a much larger devastation to come – the termination of 6 million Jews in camps and gas chambers during the Holocaust; of two hundred thousand Gypsies; of several million Soviet and Polish citizens; and unknown numbers of homosexuals, intellectuals, writers, artitst, and political dissidents.
Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) was a Ukrainian self-taught biologist who believed in Lamarckian concepts of the inheritance of acquired characteristics and rejected Mendelian inheritance and the concept of the “gene”.
In experiments performed in remote Siberia farms, Lysenko had supposedly exposed wheat strain to severe bouts of cold and drought and thereby caused the strains to acquire a hereditary resistance to adversity. By treating wheat strains with such “shock therapy,” Lysenko argued that he could make the plants flower more vigorously in the spring and yield higher bounties of grain through the summer.
Lysenko’s theory was immediately embraced by Stalin. It promised a new method to vastly increase agricultural production in a land teetering on the edge of famine: by “reeducating” wheat and rice, crops could be grown under any conditions, including the severest winter and driest summers.
While Lysenko was retraining plants to relieve them of their dependencies on soil and climate, Soviet party workers were also reeducating political dissidents to relieve them of their ingrained dependence on false consciousness and material goods.
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