A Yale history professor lectured on the history and future of eugenics in America, and hypothesized about the kind of effect it could have if used by governments.
Daniel Kevles gave his lecture in Konover Auditorium Thursday, which was part of The Heinz and Virgina Herrmann Distinguished Lecture Series on Human Rights and the Life Sciences.
Eugenics is the practice of trying to improve human genetics by controlling reproduction, traditionally with sterilization or genocide, as the Nazis attempted during World War II.
Kevles was introduced by history department head Shirley Roe who lauded him for his knowledge and comprehensive work of literature on the topic of science and human rights.
Kevles began the lecture by reflecting on the massive leaps scientists have made in the name of biology and genetic research. Given the success of the human genome project, where scientists map each gene in the human DNA strand, and the booming biotech industry, he predicted that eugenics could re-emerge as a possibility, and commenced a review of how eugenics emerged in American society in the early 1900s, and the human rights violations that came with it.
“Eugenics was not unique to the Nazis,” he said. “It could and did happen virtually everywhere.”
The surprising thing about the movement, according to Kevles, was how strongly it was picked up by the scientific community of the time. It was supported by many prominent doctors, psychologists and biologists of the period, many of whom found a home in Connecticut.
“Eugenics enjoyed strong support from social scientists, physicians and biologists at many prominent universities, including my university and your sister school, Yale,” he said. “In fact, Yale and New Haven were a leading vital center of eugenics and its advocacy in the middle third of the 20th century.”
In fact, one of the most prominent groups, The American Eugenics Society, was located in New Haven.
The popularity of eugenics was so great that the government got involved, creating a eugenics record office to conduct research and create an index of negative and positive traits in families.
Kevles said that the rush caused blame for things like criminal behavior, or being poor to be attributed to genetics. He also commented on its uncanny abililty to unite both sides of the political spectrum.
“Such doctrines make eugenics sound like a socially conservative movement, indeed it did draw much support from social conservatives, but much of eugenics belonged at the time to a wave of progressive social reform that swept through the early decades of the 20th century,” he said. “For progressives, it was a branch of social improvement or advancement that some people might be acheived form the application of science to social ends.”
Progressives and conservatives alike thought that to hunt down the gene that made people perform crime, society could be improved – a notion was even embraced by former president Teddy Roosevelt.
Race and economics quickly entered the equation, however. A great part of eugenics programs that were instituted had to deal with controlling the increasing numbers of eastern European immigrants flooding into the country. Given that the immigrants were generally poor and did not embrace the same values as the western world, they were thought to have inferior genes and according to Kevles, by the 1920s, many states instituted sterialization programs that struck hard against minorities and the poor.
California in particular had aggressive laws that sterilized roughly 6,000 people. Richer people were assumed to be more socially acceptable, and the private healthcare they could afford let them avoid any eugenicist’s eyes.
Even the Supreme Court got caught up in the rush. In the 1927 case of Buck vs Bell, a woman, Carrie Bell who gave birth to an illegitimate child, later discovered to be the product of a rape, was declared “feebleminded” and sterilized. In the court opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes said the decision was utilitarian one.
“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives,” he wrote. “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices [referring to Bell's reproductive rights] often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped by incompetence.”
Holmes went on to liken the sterilization to the laws that obliged citizens to become vaccinated.
With the introduction of the Great Depression, the laws picked up more, partially from need to cut back on government obligations to financially support the mentally ill and needy.
By the end of World War II though, when the human rights violations of the Nazis became apparent, and science was discovering more about human behaviorism and shifting importance away from genetics, the enthusiasm for eugenics died down and disappeared. Kevles said that shifting moral imperatives had an impact on it’s decline and unpopularity today.
“We equate individual reproduction rights with social good,” he said.
Kevles ended his speech by commenting on eugenics today and the possible future it could have, such as the Chinese government’s efforts to convince its educated citizens to reproduce more than it’s uneducated members, and to prohibit mentally handicapped marraiges. He hypothesized that any program America embraced to try and strengthen genes would turn sour quickly.
“It’s hard to imagine that such power would only be used for good,” he said.
He conceded that the most likely scenario for eugenics in American society would be economically based.
“In our own day, the more health care becomes a public responsibility through taxes, and the more expensive this care becomes, the more that taxpayers will rebel against having to take care of those genetics has doomed to disease or disability,” he said. “Policy makers may feel pressured to not bring disabled people into the world, not for the sake of the gene pool, but simply in the interest of keeping down taxes.”
Still, Kelves was convinced that because of the barbarity of the eugenics programs in the past, and the fiercely democratic sentiments of Western society, no such program could be officially instituted. Private acts of eugenics, he warned, could emerge through certain biotechnicians who are working to help couples choose the sex or attributes of their future children. He was also concerned that employers and insurance companies could try and use eugenics as an excuse to deny jobs or coverage to certain families.
Grace Fisler, a 2nd-semester physiology and neurobiology major, who is also minoring in Human Rights, was shocked to hear about America’s sordid eugenic past and expressed disgust at the practice.
“It’s a complete violation of a human’s right to life, the right to reproduce,” she said.
She conceded though, that on its face, eugenics wasn’t necessarily evil.
“It could be good if you’re trying to get rid of diseases only,” she said. “But while you do that, you might start looking to inject better attributes also and it might become more questionable again.”
Robert Kosarko, a 6th-semester cognitive science major, agreed.
“If we could institute [eugenics] without all the racism or classism or search for super-soliders or all that nonsense, then I think there’s great viability to try and increase human lifespan, human constitution, or maybe make people resilient to radiation in space.”
Robert did object to Kelves’ presentation of eugencis with Nazism as such a prominent background though.
“When you frame an argument with something that big in the background, you lose perspective,” he said.
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