The history of eugenics is intertwined with the history of genetics. The term “genetics” was established in 1905 by William Bateson. Half a century previously, Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics”, which is Greek for “well-born” or “good genesis”, though Galton did not attribute the genesis of the idea to the Greeks. Eugenic history began with the ancient Greeks, and, of course, is still around today. However, today we have technology that was previously not able to be conceptualized due to past people’s knowledge. This article will give a brief overview of eugenics throughout history up to the modern day.
Eugenics in ancient Greece
The idea of eugenics was first formulated by Aristotle. Aristotle imagined a rigged lottery (of course those who drew tickets did not know the lottery was rigged). The reasoning for rigging the lottery was simple: they could prevent so-called undesirable people from breeding while promoting births for people they want to breed. Plato only wanted those in the Greek upper-classes to mate (what was termed the “guardian class), men aged 25 and women aged 20—so they can birth children in their primes.
After the children were born, they were taken from their parents and held in special nurseries. Children who were Bron defective were” hidden away”, which could be a euphemism for infanticide (a form of which was reportedly practiced in Sparta where they left newborns at the city limits so the weak could die and the strong could live). Fit young men who chose not to breed had to pay a fine which went to the temple of Hera which was based on their class.
Aristotle had similar views to Plato. He, too, wanted the State to be in charge of the birthing process. He wanted both sexes to marry at their primes, in his eyes, aged 37 for men and 18 for women, while performing infanticide on babies born with deformities and aborting children if couples have too many. (See Galton, 1998 for a review of eugenic policies in ancient Greece.) (See also Genetics and the Decline of Sparta.)
The argument for autonomy
A simple argument can be erected against any and all State coercion to do something: the argument for the rejection of State authority (Wolff, 1970). The argument can be formulated thus:
P1. We have a higher-order interest in autonomy.
P2. If something promotes our higher-order interests, we have a duty to do it.
C1. We have a duty to be autonomous (modus ponens, P1, P2).
P3. If we have a duty to be autonomous, then autonomy requires that we decide what to do with ourselves.
C2. We should decide what to do for ourselves (modus ponens, C1, P3).
P4. If we accept the authority of others, then we are not autonomous.
C3. We should not accept the authority of others (modus tollens, C1, P4).
P5. If we accept the authority of law, then we accept the authority of others.
C4. We should not accept the authority of the law (modus tollens, C3, P5).
The argument is about rejecting State authority as a whole, but, of course, we can substitute. “If we accept the authority of [law X in regard to eugenic policy P] then we accept the authority of others[‘ thoughts of what to do with our lives]”. Thus we should disallow State eugenic policies.
Eugenics in ancient Rome
Like most other ancient civilizations, the ancient Romans practiced abortion and infanticide. Archaeological analyses uncovered a well, and in the well were dozens of little skeletons, implying that the Romans disposed of the babies of prostitutes (these were found in bordellos) because they were unwanted.
The Romans “deemed people with disabilities as sub-human“, with the abandonment of the baby being standard practice—which lends more credence to the baby wells of the Romans in the bordellos.
Eugenics in China
The Chinese Maternal and Infant Health Care Law states that if the screening of an embryo reveals that the couple in question has a chance of birthing a defective baby then they should agree to take contraceptive measures (see Guo, 2006 for a review). Further, if they already married then they must take long-term contraceptive measures. These measures are supported in China, since they have about 50 million disabled persons (see MacKeller and Bechtel, 2016).
Eugenics in Germany
The ideology of eugenics was present in Germany long before Hitler came to power. It was written about by numerous authors, including Nietzsche. “The first chair of eugenics was given in 1923 at the University of Munich to the geneticist Fritz Lenz” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016). Lenz promoted ‘racial hygeine’—he wanted Nordic traits to proliferate over others traits. He eventually joined the National Socialist party in 1937. The Nazis sterilized about 350,000 people between 1934 and 1939. This, then, led to the construction of a euthanasia program in 1939 called the “T-4 program”—‘Tiergartenstrasse 4″. The order allowed physicians to grant so-called ‘mercy killings’ to those deemed incurable as gauged by the current medical technologies. All euthanasia programs, however, were halted once word got out to the general German public. The National Socialists, thus, practiced both negative eugenics (selecting against people who they deemed unfit to have children) and positive eugenics (selecting for people who they deemed fit to have children).
The horrors of WWII Germany, though, caused great revile in every aspect of any kind of genetic modifications/selecting against/for any traits in humans. After the defeat of the Axis powers, in general, the public’s attitudes towards eugenics sharply changed.
In reaction to Nazi abuses, postwar politicians and members of the scientific community denounced the notion of any inherent inequality between human individuals.
After the Second World War, however, there was a significant drop of eugenic sterilizations of those with mental disabilities in response to a decline in support for eugenic policies as a whole. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 37-38)
Eugenics in Norway
In Norway, sterilization was first mentioned in 1927. They eventually enacted a law in 1934 based on the facts that parents could not look after their children and hereditary diseases. This continued all the way up until 1977, when the rights of the individual in question were considered. Though, unlike WWII Germany, there was no State-sanctioned eugenic policy, and each case was taken on a case-by-case basis.
Between the years 1934 and 1977, about 41,000 people were sterilized, with a majority consenting to the practice—about 75 percent were enacted on women (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 39). However, between the years of 1943-1945, a law for the protection of the race was enacted in Norway while the Germans occupied the country—which was removed from law after Nazi Germany fell. However, in 1977, sterilizations changed from a way to control the people to a means of one’s ability to choose to limit their own reproduction.
Eugenics in Sweden
Sweden was the only Nordic country to have a national eugenics society. One of the leaders in eugenic thinking in Sweden in the early 1900s Arthur Engbert thought that we register pedigrees of our dogs and horses, so why not do so for ourselves (Swedes). Sweden, like Norway, enacted a sterilization act in 1934, though it only addressed sterilizations without the consent of the person; they did it to people who were legally incompetent. However, in 1941, this act was widened to include individuals with heritable physical disabilities. Women could also, of course, choose to sterilize themselves if they had too many children.
Thus, from 1935, when sterlizations were often being undertaken for eugenic reasons until 1975 when they were generally considered for medical reasons and the legislation was eventually overturned, Sweden sterlized nearly sixty-three thousand persons. Up to a quarter of these persons were mentally disabled. Though there was never a systematic sterilization program of mentally disabled individuals on the basis of political descisions or administrative instructions, the sterilizations seemed to develop on their own in the context of what was allowed. More than 90 per cent of these procedures were undertaken on women, but many individuals considered as having an antisocial way of life also felt the effects of somewhat coerced sterlizations. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 41)
Eugenics in the Soviet Union
Eugenics in the Soviet Union started with the biologists Aleksandr Serebrovskii in 1929. He recommended that artificial insemination be introduced to the populace in order to control who gives birth and who does not. He wrote (quoted in MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 41):
With the current state of artficial insemination technology…one talented and valuable produce could have up to one thousand children…In these conditions, human selection would make gigantic leaps forward. And various women and whole communes would then be proud…of their success and achievements in this undoubtedly most astonishing field — the production of new forms of human beings.
However, Stalin did not take to these proposals since, in his eyes, these types of eugenic policies contradicted Marxist ideology by claiming that human characters were determined by biology and not social/environmental ‘realities’. This, then, led to the deaths of many geneticists in the Soviet Union. (There are many good books on this matter, though my favorite is Lysenko’s Ghost.)
Eugenics in the United Kingdom
Sybil Gotto founded the Eugenics Education Society (EES) in 1907 in the UK to voice his concerns of the lower classes outbreeding the higher classes—what was perceived as a demographic problem. Francis Galton was the first Chair of this Society. So the EES proposed to prevent lower classes from breeding and promoting only breeding for the middle and higher classes, which would improve the whole society by excising the lower classes and replacing them with middle and upper classes. (There has to be a ‘bottom’ everywhere; so there still would exist ‘lower classes.’)
Winston Churchill was even quoted as saying persons in Britain “should, if possible, be segregated under proper conditions so that their curse diet with them and was not transmitted to future generations” (quoted in MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 43). After Churchill stated this, three years later, the UK Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 was established, and people deemed idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded or morally defective were detained in an effort to control the breeding of the population.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 was considered as allowing ‘soft’ forms of eugenics, it was stated that people would abort for even minor physical anomalies. Though, of course, this did end up occurring, lending credence to said ‘fears.’
Eugenics in America
Finally, the eugenics movement really became ‘scientific’ in America in the late 1800s to early 1900s. In fact, the first recorded eugenic experiment took place in America, at the so-called Perfectionist Community in Oneida, New York. The leader of this community was named John Noyes—a radical Christian, who believed that Christians had a moral responsibility to promote ‘moral perfection.’ He was influenced, of course, by Darwin and Galton. Between the years of 1869 and 1879, Noyes organized a campaign to get the so-called best to propagate. Members chosen to propagate were chosen on the basis of characters like ‘intelligence’, physical traits, and, of course, the commitment to Noyes’ vision (of a utopia). Fifty-eight children were born, but the project was soon abandoned.
Numerous US states passed laws barring certain people from marriage—imbeciles, epileptics, or those with feeble-minds. (See, for example, this article on Connecticut eugenic policies.) The Connecticut law was, in fact, the first eugenic policy passed in the country. These types of policies even were used to prevent immigration into America (see Dolmage, 2018 for a review).
Further, during the first 70 years of the 20th century, “eugenic policies affected up to sixty-four thousand Americans. But this happened primarily through measures such as forced sterilization. The 1907 Compulsory Sterilization Law of Indiana was the first to enact such legislation, though the public at large, was generally unaware of the initiative. According to this law, every institution that housed ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles’ could authorize medical personnel ‘to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation’. This legislation was replicated by other states to such an extent that, by 1927, an estimated twenty-four states had enacted similar laws. Of these, the state of California was one of the most active, performing 4,636 sterilizations and castrations between 1907 and 1925, reaching a total of 9,930 by 1935″ (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 46-47).
Then in 1927, a woman named Carrie Buck challenged the state of Virginia when a physician said that her sterilization would be for the ‘good of society.’ The high court of Virginia denied her claim, so she took it to the SCOTUS—known as Buck v. Bell. SCOTUS went 8-1 against Buck, saying that Buck “was a threat and danger to the genetic stability of society” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47). So, the highest Court in the Land sided with the physician and not the woman. Eugenic policies were hardly opposed until 1974, with the case Relf v. Weinberger. The case came about due to to “the malicious, undesired sterilization of sisters Mary Alice and Minnie Reif” (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47). In the ruling, it was stated that mentally competent adults had to give their consent to sterilization, but this did not become standard until 1981.
Ultimately, formal acknowledgment of the ethically unacceptable abuse of sterilizations in the United States only came in 2003.
The international influence of American eugenic policies shpould not be underestimated. The Nazi government regularly cited a publication that touted favorable results of the sterilization policy in the state of California as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were both feasible and humane. At the Nuremberg trials following the Second World War, Nazi administrators accused of war crimes actually justified the mass-sterilization of hundreds of thousands of people in less than a decade by referencing the United States success as their inspiration. (MacKellar and Bechtel, 2016: 47-48)
Eugenic thinking has been with us at least since the ancient Greeks and the idea has mutated over the times with different types of policies and measures each society has taken to ensure that their ‘genetic hygiene’ was as good as possible.
Eugenic thinking is, of course, still around today. Most recently, the Chinese using CRISPR—on twin girls—to create the first genetically modified humans, who were born this month. It is important to note that these claims have not been verified by other scientists nor have they been published yet. I am not too surprised at the outrage of this—if it did indeed happen (many people are skeptical that it did). I know some will say ‘Ethics don’t matter when the Chinese don’t care about ethics and look at what they’re doing!!!’ (If they truly did do this.) However, just because people disregard something doesn’t mean it does not exist. (The scientist, He Jiankui, is currently under investigation amidst questions of whether or not what he supposedly did was ethical and legal.)
Understanding the history of eugenics—the hows and whys—can prevent us from repeating past mistakes.
(For some info on the supposed Chinese gene-edited baby, see China’s gene-edited babies will push bioethics into a dark new era and A Sobering Moment for thoughts on the supposed gene-editing.)