America’s Eugenic History

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A few weeks ago, I commented on the new memorial to Nazi euthanasia victims with a reminder that Germany’s eugenics movement did not start with Hitler, but German professors and other intellectuals. A commenter on that post noted that eugenic practices in Europe actually originated here in America.

He’s right and, while I failed to mention it then, I have mentioned it several times here before. What’s often forgotten when we think about the history of eugenics is that eugenic thought and practices were also common and widespread in early 20th century US. Not only that, many prominent eugenicists from our country were Nazi advisors.

Before the mass murders and concentration camps, ethnic cleansing in Germany started with the forced sterilization of so-called “undesirables,” namely, the physically and mentally handicapped. Before Hitler, the United States lead the world in the forced sterilization of these “unfit” human beings.

Over at Breakpoint.org, Eric Metaxas goes into a little more detail.

As Edwin Black, the author of “War Against the Weak” has documented, the ideas that led to Aktion T4 “began on Long Island and ended at Auschwitz . . . and yet never really stopped.”

By “Long Island” he means the Cold Spring Harbor Lab right here in New York, which was the driving force behind the eugenics movement in the United States. Between the turn of the twentieth century and our entry into World War II, America engaged in its own experiment in “racial hygiene.”

States prohibited marriage between the “fit” and “unfit,” often defining the latter category very broadly. They forcibly sterilized tens of thousands of people with the Supreme Court’s blessing. The number of those affected by what Chuck Colson once dubbed “Yankee Doodle Eugenics” will never be known with any certainty.

What is certain is that, by the time Hitler came to power, the U.S. had been practicing the gospel of eugenics at home and spreading that message abroad, including Germany and, yes, among those who put Aktion T4 into action. As a colleague of mine has put it, “the demonic ideas about ‘race hygiene’ that the Third Reich put into practice were, at least initially, clearly marked ‘Made With Pride in the USA.’”

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Most states ended their state-enforced sterilization in the 1940s, but North Carolina didn’t pick it up til sometime after the 40s, and there it peaked during the 1950s and 1960s, before ending in the ’70s.

Germany took the movement to its natural and horrific conclusion, so it’s easy to muster up patriotic, American outrage at the atrocities of the Holocaust — especially since we played a significant role in helping our allies defeat Hitler and liberate many of those imprisoned by his ruthless government. But we mustn’t forget our own mistreatment of the sick and disabled and the role we played spreading the eugenic mindset abroad.

If only our eugenic “history” were a thing of the past. Certainly, we made many wonderful advances in the past few decades protecting the rights of people with disabilities and including them in society. But, let’s not forget that the expected American response, if a disability is known before birth, is to abort the child. So, in terms of really accepting people with disabilities, we are arguably no better than we were a century ago.

In fact, the argument could be made that we are much, much worse and that our systematic slaughter of disabled infants in the womb dwarfs or is at the very least on par with the inhumanity of Hitler’s euthanasia program. Perhaps the saddest part of it all is that we’re not being ruled by some ruthless dictator; we’re doing it to ourselves. If it can be said that we’re under the influence of any dictator, it is the dictatorship of relativism that tells us that human life has limited value.

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One Comment on “America’s Eugenic History”

  1. Leticia Velasquez

    We do have a lot to be accountable for in the past and most importantly in the present since our euthanasia program continues.
    One happy note however. In spring of 2009 at the infamous Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, I attended a speech by Dr William Mobley of UC San Diego, described his research which he hoped would “in ten years normalize the learning and memory of those with Down syndrome.” His drug is currently in its second clinical trial at Roche Laboratories in several locations and continues to offer great promise. Now I can hear our friend Dr Jerome Lejeune saying, “Watson, instead of killing those with Down syndrome, you cure them!”

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