It was difficult to understand for people how doctors and educated scientists could have believed such inhuman and ridiculous ideas as eugenics. They could not understand how educated individuals could accept such a simple notion that complex human behaviors and actions were determined by single genes. In order to understand why eugenics dominated the science and health community in the first three decades of the 20th century, one needs to understand the economic, social, and political details in which eugenics dominated. What seems to be absurd or inhumane must have seemed reasonable at that time. Especially, this could be referred to the fact that the social problems were explained by the scientific ideas. The essay is going to display the main aspects of the history of eugenics and the practice of eugenics in modern society.
History of Eugenics
The very first idea of eugenics was first introduced to the public in 1865 by British psychologist F. Galton. Here is the definition of eugenics he gave: “Eugenics is the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally” (Galton, 1908). He added that questions would be subject to a purely scientific development, and this development would not go beyond promoting eugenic ideas.
In general, the theory of Galton was not brand new. Many nations from ancient times have practiced controlled evolution. The chosen methods were quite cruel – infanticide used to occur among them. It was used to make society free of individuals who suffered from deformity and prevent an increase in their numbers. Therefore, the basis of selection was known since ancient times.
The practice of the methods of eugenics was a secret of ancient Spartans. They used cruel measures to raise their children. Therefore, many of them could not even survive the system of upbringing that existed at that time. The result of their actions was obvious – Sparta did not produce any outstanding artists or entertainers, but it became famous for its strong and brave warriors.
This is an example of the so-called negative eugenics: in other words, the elimination of the gene debris. Each breeder will confirm that the worse representatives should not be involved in reproduction. However, when it refers to people, artificial selection is in conflict with the norms of human ethics and morality.
Eugenics in America was first revealed during the times of catastrophic economic situation and immense social problems. The increase of the USA industry and the technology advancements of agriculture caused the first migration away from the farms. This migration to cities expanded faster than adequate housing. Exploitation of labor created small labor union organizations. Due to price fluctuations, businesses bankrupted and a series of depressions started; they lasted from 1873 to the early 1900s. This allowed the labor unions to become uneasy.
In the late 19th century, negative eugenics was approved in many countries. Governments passed laws allowing forced sterilization of population. Everything was done in order to reduce genetic pollution caused by inferior genes. People with mental illnesses, epilepsy, murderers, and perverts were weeded out.
The Nazis were responsible for arranging the most brutal artificial selection. All “defective people” were subjected to forced sterilization in Nazi Germany (1933-1945): Jews, Gypsies, freaks, mentally ill, homosexuals, communists, etc.
Nazi eugenics programs were first carried out as the state program in order to prevent the degeneration of German people as a representative of the Aryan race, and later – on the occupied territories of other countries that were under Nazi “racial politics”. The most famous programs were the program of euthanasia “T-4”, the destruction of homosexuals, Lebensborn, etc.
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The program of euthanasia “T-4” included the killing of the mentally ill, mentally retarded, genetically ill, disabled people, and those who had been ill for more than 5 years. Initially, children under 3 years of age were killed; but then, the killing of children of all ages began. The program included the “purification” of the Aryan race from people, whose existence affected the appearance of healthy progeny. First, it affected the patients of psychiatric clinics. The massacres of patients were initiated in 1940 in clinics in Germany and later in occupied Poland. At first, they used intravenous injections of medicines for killing or injected air directly into the vein. Later on, the Nazi used gas chambers. After a wave of protests from relatives of patients and resentment of the priests of the Catholic Church, Hitler ordered to close the T-4 program. By that time, the number of victims of the T-4 exceeded 70 thousand people that corresponded to the planned number. At the same time, despite the official closure, murders of psychiatric patients continued until the fall of the Nazi regime and the end of the war (“Chapter 5”, n.d.)
Lebensborn – raising the children of SS officers (the military organization of Germany during Hitler’s reign), who underwent racial selection. In other words, those children were free of Jewish or any other blood. The organization gave an opportunity for single mothers to give birth to children in shelters. The government was in charge of taking care of mothers and their children. This organization was funded by SS and created certain conditions for admission to the shelter in accordance with the ideology: both parents had to be healthy, of Aryan origin and did not have any criminal record.
After the war, nearly 40 million people died (the Soviet Union lost about 30 million people). It was considered that eugenics could solve all of these problems because it placed the cause not on the structure of society itself, but on the defective germ plasma of ethnic groups and individuals. People with economic and social power embraced eugenics because it allowed them to gain even more control. Eugenicists appeared to have an efficient and rational approach of treating social issues such as mental retardation and criminal activities.
After World War II, the word eugenics has become a dirty word. Nowadays supporters of eugenics call themselves specialists in the Population Biology, human genetics, racial politics, etc. Even journals received new names, turning Annals of Eugenics into Annals of Human Genetics. Quarterly Eugenics was rebranded into Messenger of Sociobiology.
The Practice of Eugenics in Modern Society
Today, more than sixty years after the Holocaust, the ideas generated by Galton’s eugenics are as alive as ever. Doctors just kill people through abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, as well as in the process of embryonic stem cell research. According to LifeSiteNews (“British Abortion Rates”, 2004):
The UK’s Daily Mail has revealed that British women are increasingly eliminating their unborn children because of non-life-threatening deformities such as deformed feet or cleft lips and palates. The report also reveals that more Down’s Syndrome babies are now killed than are allowed to be born… London’s Metropolitan University ethicist Jacqueline Laing said, ‘These figures are symptomatic of a eugenic trend of the consumerist society hell-bent on obliterating deformity…”. “This is straightforward eugenics,” UK’s LIFE Trustee Nuala Scarisbrick said. The message is being sent out to disabled people that they should not have been born. It is appalling and abhorrent.
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China is known for its forced population policy – not more than one child in a family. In most families, girls’ lives are in danger after they are born because most families want a boy. Sometimes the child is killed even before it is born. Many people stand for the idea of killing babies before they know their sex right after they find out that babes are ill. The paradox lies in the fact that they consider it the right thing.
As it has been mentioned, the original aim of eugenics was based on decreasing the chances of various diseases to be spread in the society. Many specialists of eugenics had a dream to create a new highly intelligent generation that could be free of any hereditary disease. No doubts that intelligence has a tendency to be unevenly distributed among the world’s races. Despite these facts, the methods chosen some decades ago were wrong. Nobody is given the right to limit other people forbidding them to marry each other (no matter of their race), to have a baby, or to have an opportunity to live. That is why the eugenic methods are supposed to be introduced as a voluntary choice.
In an era that was chaotic as well as in a need for change, eugenics offered the plan of a gradual and easy movement to a so-called brighter future. Eugenics always wanted a planned breeding because it allowed people to believe in good genes and bad genes. Eugenics also allowed educated individuals to believe in scientific and rational evidence. Eugenicists were seen as scientists with a special and complex main objective, which was to solve the social problems. Eugenics was able to provide people with a scientific solution to problems, even though the evidence was quite ridiculous. State welfare and charity were seen as only able to treat these social problems slightly, while eugenics gave a solution to the root of the problems. While eugenics was indeed popular in the beginning of the 20th century, it was a disgraceful science and it was rejected after World War II. However, as society progresses, support for eugenics remains and it still can be a possibility to people if economic depression continues.