Thursday, February 12

Am I really that naive?

I would like to think that I am not a naive person, but maybe I am. I went to one of the best public high schools in the country, and for some reason I believed my teachers were above just skipping over unpleasant parts of US history - but apparently I was wrong. All I remember being taught about the 1920-1940’s in the US is regarding the huge wave of immigration, industrialization, prohibition, the start of the feminist movement, and I’m sure some more or less significant stuff – but what was blatantly omitted was US involvement in the eugenics movement (Nazi Germany sure got its fair coverage). Furthermore, as a genetics major at Cornell, you would think eugenics would have come up as an example of a misuse of genetics in at least one of my classes, but surprisingly it has not.

In case you don’t know, eugenics is the social philosophy that genetic principles can be used for the improvement of human populations (see poster/advertisement above). Although eugenics is most often associated with Nazi Germany and the holocaust, few people talk about the more than 60,000 people that were forcibly sterilized in the US between 1920-1940 - because they were carriers of supposed genes for traits such as “pauperism” and “feeblemindedness.” Similar numbers were sterilized in Canada and Sweden, and sterilization programs continued into the 1970’s in all three countries. The movement was so popular in the US that state fairs during the period often had eugenics exhibits in which families could undergo eugenic evaluation for the “fittest family” competition, held in the “human stock” sections.

How could such an atrocity have been ignored in all my high school history classes. It was possibly the worst case of mass discrimination in US history, and something that we all can, and should, learn from. And if you think eugenics is a problem of the past, you’re wrong. As recently as 1995, China passed a law requiring that couples with unspecified genetic diseases “considered to be inappropriate for childbearing” can get married only if both agree to practice long-term contraception or to be sterilized. Absolutely ridiculous, and a perfect example of why we all need to be taught the history of eugenics - so we can try to avoid repeating such a regrettable period in history.

Kelves (1999) Eugenics and human rights. BMJ 319:435–438
Beardsley (1997) China Syndrome Sci Am. 276:33-34

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