FIRST-PERSON: The ugly American history of eugenics is exposed

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- Most Americans live with the belief that we are the greatest society in the world. Our roots stem from proclamations "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." We confidently assert that we always take the moral high ground on the world stage. We swell with pride over the idea that the American Dream is for everyone.

However, deep down we know that there is an ugly side to American history. We are not a perfect people, and we have made egregious errors in our brief history as a nation. Many of those errors have been swept under the rug of American pride, but on Jan. 10 the rug was pulled up to expose a terrible reality from the not-too-distant past.

A task force in North Carolina recommended that the state should pay $50,000 to each living sterilization victim of the state's eugenics program. Eugenics? Forced sterilization? This has the ring of Nazi Germany, not the United States. Unfortunately, it is true.

For those unfamiliar with the term, what exactly is eugenics? Authors Stanley J. Grenz and Jay T. Smith define it this way:

"A movement that encourages the study of heredity or the transference of genetically based traits from one generation of living beings to the next, generally with the goal of improving the hereditary endowment of humankind." [1]

Eugenics generally has two sides. "Positive" eugenics encourages (or even rewards) healthy, intelligent individuals to reproduce. The idea is that they improve the human gene pool by passing along their desirable traits. Negative eugenics discourages reproduction by those exhibiting inferior traits. While this may seem to be a noble idea on the surface, it played out in ugly ways in American history.

Paul Lombardo describes the ugly side as follows:

"In the 20th century, application of eugenical theory as a solution to social problems in America led to such ethically problematic practices as wide-scale sexual sterilization of epileptics, the mentally ill, and the retarded, restrictions on the immigration of some ethnic groups, and prohibition of marriages between people of differing racial backgrounds." [2]

That brings us back to North Carolina. Between 1929 and 1974, the North Carolina Eugenics Board authorized the sterilization of 7,600 people. The Charlotte Observer reports:

"Some cases approved by the Eugenics Board were people who were mentally ill and sexually aggressive, and families who wanted to stop having children. But the board also authorized sterilizing people who were poor, or part of large families, or whose parents worried that men might take advantage of them. Some victims were as young as 10."

North Carolina is the first state to propose reparations for the victims. It is by no means the only state that implemented such horrendous practices. Some reports estimate that 33 different states had eugenics laws that allowed for forced sterilization and that more than 60,000 American were sterilized in the process.

How did our country get to this point? From an ethical standpoint, it involved the use of a consequentialist ethic. Consequentialism is the idea that ethical decisions are made based on projected outcomes. There are several different theories that implement this process, but the basic idea is that the ends justify the means. In the case of eugenics, the desired end was a society full of healthy, productive, intelligent people. The logic of consequentialism said that any means necessary to produce that desired result is acceptable. This included forcibly prohibiting those deemed "unacceptable" from reproducing.

From a scientific angle, the impetus for eugenics came from the fledgling field of genetics. While the exact nature of genetic study was still a long way off, animal breeders had long known that breeding "superior" animals together generally resulted in better offspring. The process of selective breeding in animals was transferred to humans in the eugenics movement of the late-19th and 20th centuries.

From a political perspective, the value of the society over the individual spurred on the acceptance of eugenics. Social problems involving care for the poor and ill, immigration of those viewed as "undesirable," and the desire for a progressive society led to the implementation of such laws.

Thankfully, our society has moved past this ugly history. Or have we? While the practice of forced sterilization and eugenics laws have crept back into the darkness of history, the idea still exists and is often promoted.

Many in our society now raise the question of whether parents should be limited in the number of children they can have (e.g., population control policies). Advances in medical technology allowing doctors to diagnose diseases in utero raise the question of selective abortion to ensure that a "less than normal" child does not enter the world. The desire for "well-born" children has brought a new branch of medicine to the forefront. Behind those concepts is the practice of eugenics.

What should be our response biblically? We must not lose sight of the value and dignity of the individual human being. We see from Scripture that we are all created with the purpose to glorify God (1 Corinthians 6:20; 10:31; Revelation 4:11). We all have value to God (Matthew 12:11–12) and salvation is made available to all types of people regardless of perceived value by the culture (Galatians 3:28). Finally, from the womb to the grave, God sees us each as individuals of value and significance (Psalm 139:13–16).

North Carolina was right to acknowledge their responsibility in devaluing the dignity of the individual. Does $50,000 restore that dignity? No. Is the state right in offering some kind of reparations to the victims? Most likely, yes. Have we moved beyond this as a society? Certainly not. We need a biblical perspective of the value and dignity of the individual human being made in the image of God. Without this, we will probably walk down this road again, just in a different form.


Evan Lenow is assistant professor of ethics and director of the Riley Center at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. This column first was posted at TheologicalMatters.com, a Southwestern Seminary website.

[1] Stanley J. Grenz and Jay T. Smith, Pocket Dictionary of Ethics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003).

[2] Paul A. Lombard, "Eugenics," in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, eds., James F. Childress and John Macquarrie (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 209–10.

Download Story