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The Legacy of American Eugenics

Women protest the passage of legislation on compulsory sterilizations in 1971. Source: Southern Conference Educational Fund
Women protest the passage of legislation on compulsory sterilizations in 1971. Source: Southern Conference Educational Fund

Recently the American eugenics movement was brought back into the news by Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who claimed that Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger had created her organization in an effort to control the black population. While this claim is not entirely true, Carson does bring attention to a rarely-discussed American injustice. Throughout the twentieth century, eugenicists promoted selective breeding and forced sterilizations as a way to limit the reproduction of the “feeble-minded,” a catch-all term used to describe any unwanted individuals. This group included the mentally and physically disabled, African Americans, delinquent children, and even women deemed “overly sexual.” Essentially, the American government allowed for legislation that devalued certain individuals as a result of perceived genetic “defectiveness,” in seeming violation of the “equal protections of the law” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The United States can address this breach of its own core principles by affording reparation to eugenics victims and by ensuring that this portion of history is not forgotten.

Once widely supported during the twentieth century, the American eugenics movement has since faded into the dusty recesses of the general public’s minds, though victims remain alive today. The exact number of living victims is unclear, but in total, eugenics programs across 33 states caused permanent injury to over 60,000 Americans. Since sterilization is an enduring trauma, a mere apology is not enough to make amends. As the chief organization championing restitution efforts for eugenics victims, the Christian Law Institute has helped to successfully create monetary compensation programs in North Carolina and Virginia. Mark Bold, CEO and President of the Christian Law Institute, stated, “We can’t undo a sterilization, and so the only avenue for justice is some type of monetary compensation. There’s a debt that’s owed. That debt is ongoing until [the victims] receive some compensation.” Currently, the institute is working to create a compensation program in California.

The practice of forced sterilizations was spread across most of the United States. Graphic by Heyun Jeong.
The practice of forced sterilizations was spread across most of the United States. Graphic by Heyun Jeong.

Out of the 33 states that ran eugenics projects, North Carolina and Virginia are the only ones to have initiated restitution efforts, and only seven have issued official apologies. In 2003, California issued an apology that expressed “its profound regret over the state’s past role in the eugenics movement and the injustice done to thousands of California men and women.” Subsequently in 2013, North Carolina was the first to create plans for compensation, setting aside a $10 million fund to pay surviving victims. Virginia followed suit in 2015 with a $400,000 fund to give individuals $25,000 each. While these efforts are more proactive than those of the other 31 states, they still have flaws to be improved upon. In particular, North Carolina’s law will only affect victims whose sterilization was authorized by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina. This leaves out many who underwent forced sterilizations that were instead approved by doctors and social workers, which was more common in the state. Though the first payments were sent out last year, there are still many more victims who are not qualified to receive any redress under the current law. The niece of one such victim said, “It’s like, you’ve hurt [my aunt] once before, but then now I feel like you’re turning around and hurting her once again.” Today, advocates are asking lawmakers to change the language of the 2013 bill so that it is inclusive of all eugenics victims.  

Still, these reparation efforts have not been without opposition. Many argue that in doling out compensation to eugenics victims, other marginalized groups would seek monetary repayment for past atrocities such as slavery and the theft of Native American lands. However, Bold points out that the restitution would go to “those who are still living with what the state took from them,” as opposed to relatives of deceased individuals, and that eugenics victims have “an ongoing injury,” making the debt owed to them ongoing as well. Other opponents have insisted that monetary compensation is an overreach of the government’s jurisdiction. Yet, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. summarizes in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, the legislators behind the eugenics laws believed that “it is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Thus, the original eugenics programs were breaches of governmental jurisdiction themselves. To rectify this, advocates like Bold believe that the remaining 31 states should introduce restitution programs to demonstrate a commitment to righting the wrongs of the past.

Despite most Americans being unaware of it, the underlying principle of eugenics can be found in the form of forced sterilizations performed on female prisoners in California and encouraged abortions of disabled fetuses. Between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 female inmates of Californian prisons were subjected to sterilizations without required approval from the state. Only last year did Governor Jerry Brown sign a bill prohibiting the use of forced sterilizations on female inmates. Such a practice echoes the eugenics movement and suggests the possibility of past ideas being revisited, especially with rapidly improving genetic and reproductive technologies. Today women are increasingly pressured to perform amniocentesis tests and to pursue abortions when their babies test positive for disabilities. Though this may seem perfectly rational to some, activists warn that the logic behind this thinking—that aborting a disabled child will save a family from suffering—is, again, reminiscent of the past movement.

Since the principles behind eugenics has yet to completely leave American society, the United States has various avenues for acknowledging the past eugenics movement. As previously mentioned, few states have ever officially acknowledged their eugenics programs. California’s Senate Resolution No. 20 “urges every citizen of the state to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement.” However, the American eugenics movement is hardly ever mentioned in history classes, if at all, though the United States was cited as inspiration for the eugenics programs run by the Nazis. Beginning in 2016, Virginian students will be learning about the United States’ own eugenics movement, as recently voted on by the Virginia Department of Education. Other states can also incorporate this portion of history into their curriculums. Another possible endeavor, currently pursued by the Christian Law Institute, is the inclusion of American eugenics in the National Holocaust Museum’s content. These actions may only be symbolic in nature, but by pursuing them, the U.S. would ensure that the injustices done to the victims of American eugenics will not be forgotten through historical amnesia.

The forced sterilizations advocated by eugenicists ultimately disregarded the American principle of equality before the law. As such, the remaining 31 states can follow North Carolina and Virginia’s lead in giving monetary reparations to eugenics victims to compensate for the injury caused by the government. Through additions to educational standards, the United States can also promote awareness about this part of its past so that future eugenic malpractices may be prevented.

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