In 1942, a North Carolina social worker remanded the 14-year-old Virginia Brooks to state custody. Brooks had no idea what the government had in store for her.
Temporarily placed in an apartment building that doubled as a state hospital, authorities told Brooks that she had to have her appendix removed. Instead, doctors gave her a radical hysterectomy and told her that she could never have children.
With this act of medical mutilation, which North Carolina law sanctioned at the time, Brooks became one of more than 7,600 young people in her state alone — and more than 60,000 nationwide — sterilized under the United States’ eugenics policies.
These policies ran for decades in the U.S., and even after the Supreme Court reviewed cases stemming from them. Between World War I and the early 1970s, some 32 states passed laws restricting citizens’ rights to have children, most specifically targeting racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.
The Theory of Eugenics
The late 19th century brought about increased scientific understanding of heredity and selective breeding, and a number of thinkers began to wonder whether the same principles farmers used to breed good stock could also apply to humans.
The idea took flight, and proponents of the new “eugenics” (the name means “good breeding”) societies were quick to claim the mantle of objective science in their quest to engineer a society of enhanced humans.
Of course, these “enhanced” humans often reflected the appearance of those calling for eugenics in the first place. They tended to be white, and they were almost always financially successful.
Old money families from Europe and North America viewed themselves as the pinnacle of the human race, and thus started to pour millions of dollars into international efforts to promote good breeding and to reduce what they called “the multiplication of the unfit.”
Plans for achieving this varied across the legal climates in different nations. Some plans focused on “positive eugenics,” which rewarded favored parents for having children. Others proposed “negative eugenics,” a catchall term that covered everything from voluntary abstinence and sterilization programs to forced deportations and mass murder.
The irony is that it all began with good intentions.
The Early Days of Eugenics
The idea that some people simply clutter up the Earth isn’t new. After all, some say that the ancient Greeks abandoned weak infants in the wild, lest they grow up to be burdens to the state. In more modern times, as far back as 1798, an Anglican churchman named Robert Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principles of Population, in which he argued in favor of Ireland’s infamous Corn Laws. These imposed starvation laws, Malthus argued, could have a salutary effect on the Irish peasantry by eliminating excess population.
Without the laws, he argued, the Irish would breed beyond all measure and cause a greater catastrophe down the road. Powerful players in the British Empire took this line of reasoning seriously for half a century, and didn’t repeal the laws that prohibited importing food to Ireland until years into the 1840s’ deadly famine. Though the word “eugenics” hadn’t yet been coined, the principles were clearly visible in British policy toward Ireland: Deny food, let the famine kill hundreds of thousands, and write it off as the natural effect of an oversized population of unfit humans.
The “scientific” age of eugenics began shortly after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. It’s important to point out that Darwin never associated with “good eugenics,” nor is he known to have had a kind word to say about applying survival of the fittest principles to human beings. If anything, Darwin’s keen insight into the death and misery natural selection imposed on nature may have made him hesitant to support anything similar for people.
Darwin died in 1882. One year later, Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the term “eugenics” and began proselytizing the new faith. By 1910, professors taught eugenics as an academic discipline at scores of universities, and well-funded political action groups had sprung up to push legislation in a direction which would encourage eugenics. By and large, they succeeded.