Eugenics Is Still Alive

             Eugenics is still alive, as seen in what has been done to women prisoners in California recently.  This involves the illegal sterilization of 39 women over a six-year period between 2005 and 2013. A total of 144 prisoners underwent bilateral tubal ligations (e.g., having tubes tied), but there were 39 women who did not give their permission to have this done, as per California law.  As a result of this revelation, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill prohibiting forced sterilization in prisons (Schwartz, 2014).  According to a newscast on MSNBC with Chris Hayes, Adolf Hitler at one time studies sterilization procedures in several American states and was so impressed that he decided to model his program after California (Ibid.). Edwin Black confirms this noting that “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” (Black, 2003; see also Black, 2012; Morgan, 2000).

A study by Macallair on the history of juvenile corrections in California reports the exact same treatment of girls.  In the Whittier State Reform School, 95% of the girls were charged with “incorrigibility” in 1902 (Macallair, 2015:106).  Consistent with the Eugenics movement of that era, the Board of Trustees of the Whittier school alleged that one-third of the girls were “feeble-minded” and were considered “defective delinquents” and thus never should be allowed to return to society (Ibid, 106).  In San Francisco girls in the local industrial school were eventually transferred to a new institution called the Magdalene Asylum, which was operated by the Sisters of Mercy Convent.  The vast majority of the girls were committed for leading “an idle and dissolute life, using vulgar language, for drunkenness, or having been surrendered by parents or guardians” (Ibid, 25).    

A social movement known as the eugenics movement developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the context of widespread fear and nativism (Rafter, 1988). The goal of the movement was to eliminate, or at least physically remove, so-called “bad seeds” from an otherwise healthy U.S. soil. The theory of eugenics holds that certain problem behaviors are inherited and can be reduced and perhaps eliminated by preventing the carriers from reproducing. This theory was based in part on the idea that there are certain groups—especially racial groups—who are inherently “defective” (it was during this same period of time that the term “defective delinquent” became popular).

Eugenics was based on the philosophy of social Darwinism, which looked at human society in terms of natural selection and believed science could engineer progress by attacking problems believed to be hereditary, including moral decadence, crime, venereal disease, tuberculosis, and alcoholism. Eugenicists believed science could solve social problems, and they looked at individuals in terms of their economic worth. If an individual possessed traits that through propagation would weaken society, the scientific remedy was sterilization (Morgan, 2000).

Eugenics was, quite literally, an effort to breed better human beings—by encouraging the reproduction of people with “good” genes and discouraging those with “bad” genes. Eugenicists effectively lobbied for social legislation to keep racial and ethnic groups separate, to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and to sterilize people considered “genetically unfit.” Elements of the American eugenics movement were models for the Nazis, whose radical adaptation of eugenics culminated in the Holocaust.[1]

The movement’s research was funded in part by some of the wealthiest men in the United States at the time—including Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. These and other “captains of industry” were feeling threatened by a growing labor movement. Eugenics fit in well with the prevailing ideology that white Protestant Europeans were naturally superior, and just about every other racial stock was inferior. The rich and powerful deserved to rule over the less fit. The unfit—generally, the poor and nonwhite races—could not compete. Just as nature weeds out the unfit, society should do the same. This view justified the vast discrepancies in the distribution of wealth in society; the rich deserve to be rich because they are “naturally” superior.

A study by André Sofair and Lauris Kaldjian of Yale University found that physicians participated in state-authorized sterilization programs to prevent people believed to possess undesirable characteristics from having children (Sofair and Kaldjian, 2000).[2] The alliance between the medical profession and the eugenics movement in the United States was not short-lived. The first state eugenics law was passed in Indiana in 1907. Forced sterilization was legal in 18 states, and most left the decision to a third party. While it was once believed that eugenics had declined in popularity after the 1920s, the study found that more than 40,000 people classified as insane or feebleminded in 30 states had been sterilized by 1944; by 1963, another 22,000 had been sterilized.

The U.S. practice of neutering “mentally defective” individuals was backed by most leading geneticists and often justified on grounds that it would relieve the public of the cost of caring for future generations of the mentally ill. Sterilizations also took place mainly in public mental institutions, where the poor and ethnic or racial minorities were housed in disproportionately high numbers. “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind,” Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the majority opinion of a landmark eugenics case in 1926 (Morgan, 2000).

While eugenics was eventually discredited, the search for scientific solutions to social problems continues to target minorities and the poor. For example, The Bell Curve argued that social stratification and economic inequality depend on one criterion: cognitive ability as measured by IQ tests. By these measures, blacks and other minority races are “inherently inferior.”[3] 

In 1989, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Public Health Service issued a report calling for strategies of intervention in “minority homicide and violence.” Ironically the report cited factors like poverty, unemployment, homelessness, the availability of guns, and the glorification of violence within U.S. culture as causes of violence. Yet its recommendation for prevention focused on identifying individuals and modifying their behavior—mostly, as it turned out, with medication. The report flatly stated that: “Targeting individuals with a predisposition to, but no history of, violence would be considered primary as in programs to screen for violent behavior.” This would require “tools to facilitate screening out high-risk individuals for early intervention.” Such screening would target hospital emergency rooms, health centers, jails, and schools “at the lowest levels” where “acting out” behavior can be identified and dealt with. Perhaps more importantly, the program would conduct research “on the biomedical, molecular, and genetic underpinnings of interpersonal violence, suicidal behavior, and related mental and behavioral disorders” (Bregin and Bregin, 1998: 15; see also Cohen, 2000).

Following the logic of this view, biological factors are believed present at birth that predict later violent behavior. Infants would be the central focus of interventions designed to prevent future violence. In fact, subsequent developments of these various violence initiatives often specifically stated that the children of the poor and racial minorities would be the target. Rather than seek out some of the most common social sources of violence—racism, poverty, poor schools, unemployment, etc.—and attempt to reduce or eliminate them, government—and drug-company-sponsored research—targeted individuals and designated precursors of violent behavior (Bregin and Bregin, 1988).

Soon thereafter, the Department of Justice sponsored the Program on Human Development and Criminal Behavior. The co-directors of this project were Felton Earls (Professor of Child Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School) and Albert Reiss (Professor of Sociology at Yale’s Institute for Social and Police Studies). (Bregin and Bregin, 1988). As was the case with eugenics, academics led the search for the “genetic” source of criminal behavior. The program was designed to identify children who could be potential offenders and who were “in need of preventive treatment or control.” Specifically, the research would target nine age groups: infancy, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, and 24. The key question to be answered would be: “What biological, biomedical, and psychological characteristics, some of them present from the beginning of life, put children at risk for delinquency and criminal behavior?” (Ibid.).

A program called the Violence Initiative Project received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health. Led by psychiatrists and funded by some of the largest pharmaceutical companies (such as Lilly, Pfizer, Upjohn, Hoffman-La Roche, Abbott Laboratories and many more), the program continues to seek genetic explanations for violent crime. In her application for funding, Gail Wasserman claimed that “Genetic and neurobiological research holds out the prospect of identifying individuals who may be predisposed to certain kinds of criminal conduct . . . and of treating some predispositions with drugs and unintrusive therapies. . . . Such research will enhance our ability to treat genetic predispositions pharmacologically.” (Cohen, 2000).

Wasserman also stated “It is proper to focus on blacks and other minorities as they are overrepresented in the courts and not well studied.” She and Daniel Pine selected male minority youth, ages 6 to 10, each of whom had an older sibling who had been ruled delinquent by family court. These children, who had no criminal record, were considered to be at “high risk” (often a code word for poor urban minorities) for future violence. They were given a dose of a dangerous drug called fenfluramine[4] to examine the effects of environmental stressors on serotonin levels. Some scientists correlated low serotonin levels with aggressive behavior. Administering fenfluramine was an attempt to counter genetic predispositions to violence by increasing serotonin levels to prevent future violent acts. Of course, the only “predisposition” was a family member who had been declared delinquent, and none of the children had committed any violent acts. In addition, their serotonin levels were normal.

Children’s disorders and disruptive or violent behavior in particular remain growth markets. Powerful vested interests, including giant pharmaceutical firms, stand to profit mightily from proposed applications of biological research. Biomedical researchers and their labs and institutes will not readily fold or refrain and retool for wholly different kinds of research (Bregin and Bregin, 1988: 40).[5]

The research cited by such biological theories is very selective and ignores the vast research that disproves any linkage between biology (including genetics) and crime, especially violent crime. The causes are social, not biological. Indeed, numerous studies have shown that those who commit the most heinous acts of violence have suffered, from an early age, incredible humiliation and brutality from their caretakers (often witnessing one violent act after another). Inevitably they begin to engage in similar acts against others; the victim becomes the victimizer. It has nothing to do with genetics. It has everything to do with one’s immediate environment, including the violence within our own culture.

To put it bluntly, the United States is a very violent society. Most of the violence has been committed by those in power (mostly white, by the way) against those without power. Americans have been responsible for a great deal of what has recently been called “ethnic cleansing,” although politicians and the media have been applying the term very selectively. Examples abound: the genocide of the Native American population, the subjugation of African slaves, the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the deportation of Chinese-Americans and Italian-Americans, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in “relocation centers” during World War II, the murderous rampages of the Ku Klux Klan, the McCarthy era “witch-hunt,” and the support (money, training, and ammunition) of totalitarian dictatorships around the world (especially in Latin America), primarily to protect corporate interests. (Ample documentation exists for this contention, such as Blum, (2000).

Biological and genetic approaches to human behavior, including criminality, have a long history.  Very popular magazines (including Life, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, U.S. News and World Report, Time, and Newsweek) ran cover stories in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s “emphasizing the contribution of genes to our social behavior. Coat-tailing on major advances in genetic biotechnology, these articles portray genetics as the new “magic bullet” of biomedical science that will solve many of our recurrent social problems. The implication is that these problems are largely a result of the defective biology of individuals or even racial or ethnic groups” (Allen, 2001).

Some see a connection between the modern use of the Genome to solve certain problems and the old eugenics programs. Alex Capron (2007) warned of the dangers inherit in the use of genetics. A series entitled “Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Project” explores the eugenics program in North Carolina under which 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974 were sterilized.[6]  The Website contains links to documents and current stories related to eugenics. For example, one story describes how the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization that watches hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, began tracking university professors who suggested that a modern version of eugenics should be used to eliminate weak parts of the population (Deaver, 2002).[7] 

In 2001 Paul Lombardo, the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia, stated: "As a country, we have not outgrown bigotry, nor our regular desire to find scapegoats for economic conditions, nor the need to enlist science as the panacea for social conditions" (Philipkoski, 2001). Such views are typical of “the attempt to explain criminality and other human problems as individual ‘defects’ rather than the result of social conditions” (Ibid.). Lombardo saw into the future and we can now see how right he was.  



Allen, G.  (2001). “Is a New Eugenics Afoot?” Science 294: 59 – 61. Retrieved from

Black, E. (2012). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race. Washington, DC: Dialog Press (expanded edition of the original published in 2003).


------------- (2003). “The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics.” History News Network, September.  Retrieved from:


Bregin, G. and P. Bregin. (1998). The War Against Children of Color: Psychiatry Targets Inner City Youth. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, p. 15


Capron, A. (2007). “Dark History, Bright Future The Ethical Conundrum of Eugenics and

Genomics.” The public lecture was delivered in Edinburgh on April 26. Retrieved from


Cohen, M. (2000). “Beware the Violence Initiative Project.” Z Magazine (April). Retrieved



Gould, S. J. (1994). “Curveball.” The New Yorker (November 28), pp. 139–49. 

Herman, E. (1994). “The New Onslaught,” Z Magazine (December), pp. 24–26. 

Hernstein, R. (1971). “I.Q.” The Atlantic, September: 43–64. 

---------------and C. Murray (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press. 

Jensen, A. (1969). “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Harvard Educational Review 39: 1–123. 

Morgan, D. (2000). “U.S. Eugenics Paralleled Nazi Germany.”  Chicago Tribune, February 15.  Retrieved from: 

Rafter, N. H. (ed.). (1988). White Trash: The Eugenic Family Studies, 1899–1919. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. 

Sofair, A. and L. Kaldjian. (2000). “Eugenic Sterilization and a Qualified Nazi Analogy: The United States and Germany, 1930–1945.” Annals of Internal Medicine 132(4): 212–319.


Wilson, J. Q. and R. Hernstein (1985).  Crime and Human Nature: The Definitive Study of the Causes of Crime. New York: Simon and Schuster. 


[1] “The Eugenics Archive” developed by Elof Carlson of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Retrieved from

[2] Sofair, A. and L. Kaldjian. (2000). “Eugenic Sterilization and a Qualified Nazi Analogy: The United States and Germany, 1930–1945.” Annals of Internal Medicine 132(4): 212–319.

[3] Space does not permit a complete examination of this controversy. See Jensen (1969); Hernstein (1971); Wilson and Hernstein (1985); Hernstein and Murray (1994); the most damning critiques of this work were: Gould (1994), and Herman (1994). An excellent source for the eugenics movement is Rafter (1988).

[4] Fenfluramine was the main ingredient in the diet drug “fen phen.” Shortly after this experiment was completed in late 1997, the drug was withdrawn from the market because it could cause potentially fatal heart valve impairments in many patients and brain cell death in others.

[5]  The violence targeted is that committed by the poor and racial minorities. No one suggested testing the children of members of Congress or the children of Fortune 500 CEOs, despite the fact that some of those individuals have been responsible for a great deal of death and destruction around the world (as any cursory review of white collar and corporate crime research will reveal). But no one has put that type of violence under the microscope to determine genetic influences. Rather, the poor and racial minorities pose the same threat to those in power that European immigrants posed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

[6]Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program. Retrieved from

[7] Deaver, D. (2002). “Stirring Up Academia.” Retrieved from