Some Notes on Eugenics

Osagie Obasogie, Professor at the University of California Hastings Law School, says it well in this sweet new 4-min video by the Center for Genetics and Society (CGS) in Berkeley:

“When I speak with colleges, grad students and professional schools, and I ask them about the eugenics movement, oftentimes they’re not aware how much that movement originated in the United States. Having this deeper context to understand this long history of science being used or misused and abused to justify the oppression of other groups is important to understand how what many people consider to be good intentions can often have bad outcomes for certain populations and certain groups.”

In “Race Under the Microscope,” Emily Beitiks with Biopolitical Times asks us:

“How and why do long-discredited biological explanations of socially-defined race maintain a presence within scientific and medical research? How do misguided research practices and policies lay foundations for technologies, discourses and public understandings that foster biological assumptions about race?”

Why I am glad you asked, Emily. Significantly, what is at stake in a given project like eugenics depends upon the conditions of its arrival. So let’s start with the basics: Sir Francis Galton is known as one of the “founding fathers” of eugenics, he’s also Charles Darwin’s cousin–you know, Darwin, (thinking back to high school biology…) evolutionary theorist, known for his work on what he calls “natural selection.”

Galton claims: “Eugenics is the study of all agencies under social control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.”

What were some founding goals of U.S. Eugenics at the turn of the twentieth century?

  • Create a superior Nordic race.
  • Sterilize 14 million in the U.S. and millions worldwide.
  • Eradicate the “lowest tenth” until only Nordics left.

U.S. Organizations and Funders

  • American Breeders Association, 1903.
  • J. H. Kellogg’s Race Betterment Foundation, 1906.
  • Eugenics Record Office, 1910.

Eugenic record office

  • Galton Society, 1918.
  • American Eugenics Society, 1921.

Gilded Age Funding:

  • Harriman family (railroad).
  • Rockefeller (Standard Oil), also funded Nazi program.
  • Carnegies (steel) funded Cold Spring Harbor, NY eugenics laboratory.

Eugenic Leaders

  • Charles Davenport: zoologist and biologist, wrote the book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911) where he surmises that “all men are created bound by their protoplasmic makeup and unequal in their powers and responsibilities.”
  • Harry Laughlin: publicist, known for his unrelenting advocacy for U.S. eugenic policies of compulsory sterilization legislation. He bethinks, “In the long run, military conquest by a superior people would be highly preferable to a conquest by immigration by peoples with inferior stock endowments.”

Racial Classifications

  • Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (enacted strictest immigration laws ever).
  • People of color in the U.S. (segregation and miscegenation laws – sterilization).
  • “Feeble-minded,” poor, uneducated, people with disabilities, blind, deaf, “promiscuous” (segregation and sterilization).

Slight detour: linking the past to the present. Disability, deviance, and “feeble-mindedness.”

  • As a historically contingent and contradictory process, the threat of deviance is stereotyped and pathologized as the cause of criminal and immoral behavior, thus in need of discipline and control so that one’s “deviance” may be protected from society and moreover so society be protected from non-normal bodies and minds. For instance, eugenic ideology renders neurological variations as pathological cognitive impairment, or what is currently known as developmental disability, which presumes an inherent inferiority in mindedness.
  • In her essay “Docile Bodies, Docile Minds,” Licia Carlson investigates the ways in which institutions and asylums at the turn of the twentieth century depended upon and perpetuated the contingent nature of contradictions within the category of mental retardation itself. She writes, “The institutions, as protective and productive sites of disciplinary power, perpetuated the view of feeblemindedness as both a helplessly static fate and an improvable, dynamic condition.” Historically it is believed that, as pathology, such non-normalcy is a hereditary “helplessly static fate” and thus reproducible; hence the hyper-regulation and disciplining of non-normal bodies working through sexuality and reproductive capacity (like Harry Laughlin’s proposed legislations around compulsory sterilization). Pervasive reproductive surveillance of cognitively disabled people continues today, portraying people with neurological variation as infantile sub-humans who remain “unfit” to be proper parents.


  • Eugenicists believed in an extremely narrow definition of “fitness.” A eugenic family was (according to THEIR definitions!) intelligent, healthy, Nordic (or at least Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon), and prolific breeders.

Social context: Immigration
Massive immigration: fears of disease, many Americans feared labor competition from cheaper immigrant labor, rise of socialism, labor unrest (hmm… sound familiar? U.S./Mexico border, anyone?).

Immigration Laws
1920, Eugenicist Harry Laughlin testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Immigration and Naturalization.

  • “Immigrant women are more prolific than our American women.”
  • Immigrant “blood” threatened to “weaken the stock” of Americans.

Immigration Restriction Act of 1924

  • Halt the immigration of supposedly “dysgenic” Italians and eastern European Jews.
  • Number of immigrants from each country in proportion to their % of the U.S. population 1890 census (northern and western Europeans).
  • Quota of southern and eastern Europeans reduced from 45% to 15%.
  • Repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Eugenics Popularization: Church, EDUCATION, Fairs, Films, Conferences, Books.

Prestigious U.S. universities like Stanford, Yale, Harvard, The University of Chicago, and Princeton were pioneers in eugenic “scientific” knowledge production, and many eugenic practices continue today in genetic testing.

Eugenics and disciplinary knowledge production

Fitter Families Contests, from

  • When one considers the strong contribution of agricultural breeding to the eugenics movement, it is not difficult to see why eugenicists used state fairs as a venue for popular education. A majority of Americans were still living in rural areas during the first several decades of the 20th century, and fairs were major cultural events. Farmers brought their products of selective breeding — fat pigs, speedy horses, and large pumpkins — to the fair to be judged. Why not judge “human stock” to select the most eugenically fit family?
  • This was exactly the concept behind Fitter Families for Future Firesides — known simply as Fitter Families Contests. The contests were founded by Mary T. Watts and Florence Brown Sherbon — two pioneers of the Baby Health Examination movement, which sprang from a “Better Baby” contest at the 1911 Iowa State Fair and spread to 40 states before World War I. The first Fitter Family Contest was held at the Kansas State Free Fair in 1920. With support from the American Eugenics Society’s Committee on Popular Education, the contests were held at numerous fairs throughout the United States during the 1920s.

Texas State Fair, large family winner of the Fitter Families Contest, 1925

  • At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).
  • All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.

Let’s conclude with some Edwin Black:

Hitler and his henchmen victimized an entire continent and exterminated millions in his quest for a co-called “Master Race.”
But the concept of a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race didn’t originate with Hitler. The idea was created in the United States, and cultivated in California, decades before Hitler came to power. California eugenicists played an important, although little known, role in the American eugenics movement’s campaign for ethnic cleansing.


Disabling the “Choice Paradigm” in the Abortion Debate and Enabling Complexity

Okay, so I am trying to contain my excitement.  But who am I kidding?!  Enerfly, a new social networking and social movement site for disability, just released my first e-publication outside of my sweet WordPress blog.  HOLLA!

Here’s the awesomeness, re-posted for your reading pleasure and for the sake of my own little e-archive:

The Pro-Life Action League made their annual appearance at my campus this week.  As they were obstructing my path to class, I held up a folder against my face in protest while I quickly walked passed.

Pro-life versus pro-choice.  Reproductive rights versus reproductive justice.  What’s the difference?

Native sovereignty activist and scholar Andrea Smith argues that “a reproductive justice agenda must make the dismantling of capitalism, white supremacy, and colonialism [and ableism!] central to its agenda…We must reject single-issue, pro-choice politics of the mainstream reproductive rights movement as an agenda that not only does not serve women of color [and women with disabilities] but actually promotes the structures of oppression which keep women of color [and women with disabilities] from having real choices or healthy lives.”[i]

Native sovereignty issues are also disability justice issues.  The potential for radical coalitional work here is profound.  But, more on that later.

When it comes to disability, the mainstream reproductive rights movement simply isn’t enough.  Not only is it not enough, but as Andrea Smith points out, it actually promotes the structures of oppression by not confronting the systemic root causes of disabled women’s health and wellness.

Can disabled women be mothers?  Can nondisabled women, or disabled women, knowingly carry to term a fetus with “defective genes”?

With the historical legacy of eugenics, and interlocking systems of oppression, these are difficult questions that the reformist binary of pro-life vs. pro-choice cannot “answer.”

Caroline, a wheelchair-user, reflects on her experiences with doctors regarding reproductive issues: “To acknowledge what I feel I have been denied is almost too painful to think about.  It’s safer to tell myself that I don’t want to have children anyway.”[ii]  Among the friends, family, and physicians of disabled women who were surveyed in a research study, three fourths “believe that maternal disability is cause enough to restrict childbearing.”[iii]

The struggle with reproductive issues has been a significant aspect of disability justice projects since the 1970s disability rights movement.  Ujima, disabled at the age of twelve, testifies in her early forties, that “there are people out there who think that they have the right to tell you that you shouldn’t [have a baby] simply because you’re disabled.  Many years ago I had an abortion that I didn’t really want because everyone I told…all said that it would be wrong for me to go ahead with it.  At the time I remember my doctor telling me that I should consider being sterilised so that I wouldn’t make the mistake of having another unwanted pregnancy, but the fact is that I did want it and have been wanting to have another baby ever since.”[iv]

Many disabled women have spoken out against the forced sterilization and abortions they have experienced, and against the nonconsensual use of Depo-Provera, a birth control hormone injected every three months, by both doctors and personal assistants.  Yvonne Duffy, a self-identified  “severely disabled” wheelchair user who contracted polio at age two, “was particularly disappointed” when she learned that a “prominent advocate of sex education for the [cognitively disabled] suggested injections of Depo-Provera as birth control for those of us who cannot manage it [sexual intercourse, menstruation and changing pads/tampons regularly] for ourselves.”[v]

The elusive history of U.S. eugenics underlies much medical research and actions towards disability and reproduction, and permeates in genetic research today.  On selective abortion and disability, feminist biologist Ruth Hubbard notably begs the question, “Who should and should not inhabit the world?”  Hubbard examines current situations surrounding selective abortion where pregnant women are required to sign either “yes” or “no” to prenatal testing which tests women’s fetuses for various “disabilities.”[vi]  If a woman “chooses” to test, and her tests are “positive” (Hubbard discusses the major discrepancies and unreliability of many of these tests in terms of their results), then the woman is left to “decide” whether or not to “burden” society with a child with a supposed disability.  Hubbard discusses the underlying eugenic ideologies at length and how today’s rhetoric “of the concern for the quality of life” in genetic testing and research, and in many other public sectors as well, is like the “arguments about lives not worth living.”[vii]  Ever heard the horrible ableist statement, “I’d rather die than be disabled”?  Such sentiments are directly reflective of the root causes that reproductive justice campaigns need to tackle.

Importantly, disability reproductive justice campaigns and activists need to be vigilant about co-optation by nation-state and pro-life interests.  Just on September 2, 2011, The Pro-Life Action League published an article praising a mother for “choosing” life for her conjoined twins.  This is a stark example of pro-life co-optation of disability reproductive justice issues.  The rhetoric of “choice” is individualist language that functions to mask underlying structural oppressions which greatly impact reproductive issues for disabled women, women of color, and nondisabled women with “disabled” fetuses.  Native sovereignty activist Andrea Smith argues that the

“consequence of the “choice” paradigm is that its advocates often take positions that are oppressive to women from marginalized communities.  For instance, this paradigm often makes it difficult to develop nuanced positions on the use of abortion when the fetus is determined to have abnormalities.  Focusing solely on the woman’s choice to have or not have this child does not address the larger context of a society that sees children with disabilities as having lives not worth living and that provides inadequate resources to women who may otherwise want to have them.”[viii]

It is not simply a matter of “choice” for abortion or for life; several critical factors come into play such as the historical context of eugenics, structural issues such as healthcare, educational opportunity, community support and accountability, which, although the woman “chose” to have her conjoined twins, by staying within the paradigm of choice The Pro-Life Action League does not take into account root causes that shape reproductive issues especially surrounding disability.

Image featured in my Enerfly article

[i] Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005, 104-105.

[ii] Shakespeare, Tom, Kath Gillespie-Sells, and Dominic Davies. The Sexual Politics of Disability: Untold Desires. London and New York: Cassell, 1996, 15.

[iii] Waxman, Barbara Faye. “Commentary on Sexuality and Reproductive Health.” Women with Physical Disabilities: Achieving and Maintaining Health and Well-Being. Eds. Danuta M. Krotoski, Margaret A. Nosek, and Margaret A. Turk, eds Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., 1996, 182.

[iv] Gillespie-Sells, Kath, Mildrette Hill, and Bree Robbins. She Dances to Different Drums: Research into Disabled Women’s Sexuality. London: King’s Fund Publishing, 1998, 12.

[v] Duffy, Yvonne. All Things Are Possible. Ann Arbor, MI: A.J. Garvin and Associates, 1981, 24.

[vi] Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Should Not Inhabit the World?” The Disability Studies Reader, Third Ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York and London: Routledge, 1997, 114-18.

[vii] Hubbard, 117.

[viii] Smith, 100.