Tony Platt: The history of American Eugenics is being rewritten

The 1942 U.S. Supreme Court case of Skinner v. Oklahoma is remembered for protecting “the right to have offspring,” and by implication the right not to have offspring. Skinner, according to Victoria Nourse, the author of an important new book on American eugenics, typically “sits in the shadow of the abortion and gay marriage debates.”

“In Reckless Hands: Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics” demonstrates that Skinner also opens a window into a little-known chapter of American eugenics: how prisoners at a hardscrabble prison in Oklahoma in the aftermath of the Depression led a sophisticated struggle to limit the practice of compulsory sterilization in the United States.

Much has been written about the history of eugenics, but until publication of this book we knew little about how eugenic sterilization was used in prisons and against men, and even less about the views of its targeted victims. It’s a lively tale, well told, until the author, a law professor at Emory University, tries her hand at historical generalizations.

At the core of eugenics was a belief in a central role of heredity in both determining and explaining social inequality. Influenced by 19th-century developments in genetics, medicine and public health, eugenics was not a crank science. At the height of its influence, support came from some unlikely ideological bedfellows. It was endorsed by Fabian socialists in England and racial scientists in Germany; linked to birth control and progressive economic reforms in Denmark, and to racial policies against itinerant gypsies in Sweden; an expression of Fascist ideology in Germany and Argentina, and of cultural hybridity in Mexico; and closely associated with the sterilization of those defined as “feebleminded” in Germany, the United States, Sweden and Denmark.

In the 1930s, Nazi Germany made eugenics an official state policy, first openly sterilizing hundreds of thousands of women, then secretly murdering many of its disabled and mentally ill patients judged leading “lives unworthy of life.” Until the onset of World War II, when selective murder turned into organized butchery, Nazi racial scientists were appreciated around the world, especially in the United States, where eugenics was dominated by right-wing hard-liners.

American eugenicists boosted “Anglo-Saxon” and “Nordic” types as the engine of modern society and promoted policies of apartheid to protect the “well born” from contamination by impoverished and mentally ill “degenerates.” Believing that social failure and success could be traced to “racial temperament,” its leaders advocated “positive eugenics” to increase the birthrate of privileged, white families, and “negative eugenics” to reduce the birthrate of groups considered a burden on civilization.

In addition to promoting utopian visions of a brave new world and exploiting cultural anxieties about racial degeneracy, eugenic scientists were hands-on activists, campaigning against “miscegenation,” and in favor of welfare and immigration restrictions. Their greatest success in the United States during the first half of the 20th century was lobbying for the compulsory sterilization of 60,000 mostly poor women, considered “feebleminded” or “socially inadequate.”

Until recently, the conventional scholarly wisdom claimed that Hitler’s reign of terror ended scientific infatuation with eugenics. Writing in 1963, Mark Heller argued that by the time of World War II, racism ceased to have scientific respectability and “as a result, American eugenics and racism faced a parting of the ways.” In 1985, Daniel Kevles, the distinguished historian of science, similarly made the case that “the Nazi horrors discredited eugenics as a social program.”

But spurred by interest in the relationship between the new genetics and old eugenics, and by concerns about the misuses of science and medicine, a new generation of scholars is revising how we understand the timeline and scope of eugenics. They have drawn attention to the ties between biological theories of race and nation building; to the rebranding of pre-World War II eugenics as population control in the 1950s; and to contemporary uses of hereditarian arguments to bolster anti-feminism and justify racial inequality.

“In Reckless Hands” focuses on the use of sterilization against poor white men in Oklahoma during the 1930s and 1940s and adds a new dimension to our understanding of class prejudices within the American eugenics movement....

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