We Still Don’t Know How to Navigate the Cultural Legacy of Eugenics

From abortion to immigration, a long-debunked scientific movement still casts long, confusing shadows over our most fraught debates.

Audrey Farley | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,381 words)

 

On May 28, Justice Clarence Thomas issued an eyebrow-raising opinion. It concurred with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold an Indiana law that requires abortion providers to follow a certain protocol to dispose of fetal remains and prohibits abortions on the sole basis of a fetus’s sex, race, or disability. It wasn’t the justice’s position that caught attention, but rather his method. In speaking to the law’s second provision on selective abortions, Thomas launched into a history of eugenics, the debunked science of racial improvement that gained popularity in the early decades of the 20th century.

Arguing that abortion is “an act rife with the potential for eugenic manipulation,” the justice offered a lengthy discussion of the origins of the birth-control movement in the United States. In this discussion, written for the benefit of other courts considering abortion laws, Thomas explains how Planned Parenthood grew in tandem with state-sterilization campaigns, providing the foundation for the legalized abortion movement. (As historians corrected, legal abortion preceded birth control, as it was not regulated until the 19th century.) The justice cites the disturbing rhetoric of Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, who wrote in The Pivot of Civilization that birth control was a means of reducing the “ever increasing, unceasingly spawning class of human beings who never should have been born at all.” While conceding that Sanger did not support abortion, Thomas nonetheless argues that “Sanger’s arguments about the eugenic value of birth control in securing ‘the elimination of the unfit’ apply with even greater force to abortion, making it significantly more effective as a tool of eugenics.”

Thomas does not offer concrete evidence that American women actually abort fetuses solely because of sex, race, or disability. Nor does he explore the possible reasons for abortions related to these criteria, such as financial hardship or the lack of societal support for individuals with chronic conditions. His grievance with abortion boils down to this point: the practice is ill-borne. This claim is inaccurate, for reasons that historians swiftly noted; it also obscures the fact that eugenics did in fact initiate many traditions in this country, not all of which are perceived to be heinous today. Thomas’s incautious opinion, which echoes other voices in the abortion debate, unwittingly invites a more nuanced discussion of eugenics’ legacies.

However one feels about the ethics of aborting a fetus diagnosed with Down Syndrome, it is imperative to recognize the key differences between eugenic sterilization and abortion: who makes the decision and why.

Shortly after the opinion’s release, critics faulted the justice for “using eugenics as a rhetorical sledgehammer.” Adam Cohen, whose book on eugenics Thomas repeatedly cited, observed that Thomas’s argument “relied on a kind of historical guilt-by-association,” rather than on a fully baked thesis. Cohen stressed that, like Sanger, most leading eugenicists actually opposed abortion. From his perspective, Thomas’s opinion was a thinly veiled attempt “to put a new weapon in the arsenal of the anti-abortion movement” by posing this question to opponents: “If you do not buy the argument that abortion ends a human life, how about the idea that it is an attempt to restrict reproduction in order to ‘improve’ the human race?”

State-level lawmakers are testing the same tactic. Six states have introduced legislation banning abortions solely due to a prenatal Down Syndrome diagnosis, and those championing these bills repeatedly invoke eugenics. A representative in Pennsylvania said of the legislation, “We shouldn’t allow eugenics to prevent babies with Down Syndrome from being given the chance at life.” A lawmaker in Utah stated that “selective abortion . . . is the very definition of eugenics.” Pope Francis agrees, saying selective abortion after a diagnosis “is the expression of an inhuman eugenics mentality.”

However one feels about the ethics of aborting a fetus diagnosed with Down Syndrome, it is imperative to recognize the key differences between eugenic sterilization and abortion: who makes the decision and why. As Cohen explains in his response to Thomas, in the case of eugenic sterilization, the state acts in the (alleged) collective interests of the population; in the case of abortion, a pregnant person acts in their own interests or those they attribute to the fetus, as in cases where the fetus is not likely to live long outside the womb. For this reason, “A woman in Indiana who has an abortion because the child will be born with a severe disability is not acting eugenically — she is not trying to uplift the human race.”

Some of Thomas’s critics allow that societal biases do influence individual notions of a worthy life, which, in turn, impact decisions related to abortion. But these critics insist that restricting abortion will not resolve these prejudices. HuffPost reporter Lydia O’Connor attributes the practice of sex-selective abortion in Asia, which Thomas references, to pervasive sexism. Like Mara Hvistendahl, who published a book on the subject, she maintains that taking away one of women’s civil liberties is not going to reverse sexism. In fact, restricting marginalized persons’ pregnancy choices extends eugenics-era practices. University of Michigan history professor Alexandra Minna Stern told The Washington Post, “That’s the through line that I see, in terms of state-mandated reproductive control.” From her perspective, demanding that women give birth is not so different than preventing them from doing so.

Stern’s comment suggests the problem, for Thomas and other lawmakers, of drawing upon eugenics to legislate against abortion: there exist many other “through lines” between early-century race crusaders and contemporary institutions that the political right does not care to acknowledge. Anti-immigration legislation is an obvious one. Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, banning entry from Asian countries and restricting the numbers of Italians and Eastern Europeans, expressly to prevent further “pollution” of the gene pool by intellectually and morally “defective” immigrants. Republican lawmakers’ public comments suggest that the same logic informs current immigration policies. President Trump has repeatedly defended his support of a Mexican border wall on the grounds that it will keep rapists, drug dealers, and criminals out of the country. The president has also said that America needs fewer immigrants from “shithole countries” and “more people from places like Norway.”

“Family values” as we know them today also harken back to eugenics, when authorities first determined that the nuclear family was essential to protecting the white race. But conservatives are not likely to trace this lineage either. Nor do conservatives acknowledge the eugenic mechanisms rampant within the criminal justice system. In 2013, a California audit found that 39 of the 144 women in the state’s prison system who underwent a bilateral tubal ligation between 2005 and 2013 did so under conditions of missing or dubious consent. In 27 of these 39 cases, a physician failed to sign the inmate’s consent form certifying the inmate’s mental competence and understanding of the procedure’s lasting effects. In 18 cases, the waiting period between the inmate’s consent and the date of surgery was potentially violated. The 144 sterilized inmates shared a profile: they were between 26 and 40 years of age, were poorly educated, and had been pregnant five or more times. In several southern states, judges have issued standing orders promising women sentence reductions in exchange for birth control implants.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


These examples highlight how both the logic and practice of eugenics endure, despite the fact that many Americans situate eugenics in the remote past. They reveal that concerns about the “stock” of the nation continue to shape social and legal policies, even as citizens agree on the moral atrocities of the eugenics movement. But not all of the legacies of eugenics are as easy to stamp with a “toxic” label. There are many eugenics-inspired traditions that people of diverse political leanings would regard as socially valuable, or at least largely innocuous: genetic science, baby contests, couples counseling, IQ tests, and gifted education, for instance. These traditions have developed purposes beyond their eugenic ones, and thereby further complicate Thomas’s rhetorical maneuver. They suggest the illogic of simply lifting historical practices from their context and dropping them onto the present.

Genetics flourished in the United States to undergird sterilization campaigns. Realizing the need to expand upon Gregor Mendel’s research on inheritance patterns, which had inspired Francis Galton to conceive eugenics in England in the 19th century, Charles Davenport founded the Eugenics Records Office to apply studies on inheritance to the burgeoning social movement in America. Davenport and his peers also supported the work of pioneering geneticists like Thomas Hunt Morgan, whose work on fruit flies later earned him a Nobel Prize. For many years, “human genetics and eugenics were one and the same,” Edwin Black explains in War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. This changed when geneticists like Morgan denounced eugenics as unscientific, claiming that it disregarded the role of the environment in the development of traits and that the inheritance of positive or negative traits extended well beyond one generation. When Nazi Germany further tarnished the movement by drawing upon its idiom of racial improvement to execute genocide, eugenicists rebranded, adopting the more respected term “genetics.” They quietly changed the titles of professional organizations and journals; and the President of the American Eugenics Society advised the organization’s members to look to genetics, as well as the sciences of population and psychology, “for the factual material on which to build an acceptable philosophy of eugenics.”

Thomas acknowledges this chronology in his opinion, but he does not suggest that we abandon genetic science altogether. And why would he? The study of genes has greatly contributed to medical knowledge, as well as to the development of much-needed drugs. It has helped untold numbers of people to become parents regardless of their race or ethnicity, and it has saved the lives — in some cases, though interventions in utero — of people who would previously have been classified “unfit.” In another ironic twist, a Guardian columnist explains, genetics has “singularly demonstrated that race as a scientific concept holds no water.”

Not unlike genetics — though with considerably less impact — baby contests, like the one Gerber hosts annually, have also shape-shifted over the years. These competitions began as eugenic exhibits at state fairs to promote infants with “a sound mind in a sound body.” The founders of “Better Babies” contests were concerned about high infant mortality at a time when the average American woman was producing only half of the children she had birthed before the Civil War. The contests transformed into Fitter Family contests, where adults won medals based on the whiteness of their pigment, the arch of their noses, the straightness of their teeth, and the flawlessness of their family trees. “Yea, I have a goodly heritage,” read the winning medals, assuring recipients that they should get married and have children — plenty of children. Today, contests like Gerber’s may seem silly and may even provide an occasion for the public to express preferences for certain physical traits, just as advocates of “Better Babies” contests did. But the tradition has certainly moved away from its eugenic roots. Contests celebrate children from all nationalities and social classes, are inclusive of babies with developmental disabilities, and fund programs in low-income communities, once the target of eugenics campaigns. Their purpose is corporate engagement — not the betterment of any specific race.

When Nazi Germany further tarnished the movement by drawing upon its idiom of racial improvement to execute genocide, eugenicists rebranded, adopting the more respected term ‘genetics.’

Perhaps the most useful example of institutional transformation, however, is couples counseling, since it developed precisely to carry eugenics into the present day. Whereas eugenicists initially leveraged genetics and baby contests to expand public support for their movement, they promoted couples counseling to disguise eugenic practices from a society increasingly wary of rhetoric about racial integrity. Nonetheless, this tradition also developed social functions beyond its original one, suggesting the need for measured historical inquiry — attention to the influence of the past without disregarding present realities. Like reproductive technologies, couples counseling can be deployed as a “tool of eugenic manipulation”; but its origins alone are not enough to establish it as one.

As a therapeutic practice, couples counseling emerged in the 1930s to complement sterilization campaigns, which were drawing criticism for relying on shoddy science. The father of the tradition, Paul Popenoe, envisioned counseling as the “positive” side of the eugenics coin. (If sterilization prevented the “unfit” from reproducing, marriage counseling saw that the “fit” reproduced.) Popenoe had gained recognition in the 1910s, when he visited asylums across California to inspect inmates subjected to the state’s new sterilization law. Based on his findings, Popenoe argued in Journal of Heredity that approximately ten million Americans — then, a tenth of the population — should be sterilized. Of course, he wasn’t alone in thinking this; Davenport and Harry Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office were campaigning across the country for laws like the one in California. When Popenoe became secretary of the Human Betterment Foundation and founder of the Southern California branch of the American Eugenics Society, he continued to advocate for involuntary sterilization. But he also devoted attention to another “evil” behind the decrease of the fitter races: feminism. This obsession enabled him to adapt eugenics in its time of crisis.

In a 1918 textbook co-authored with Roswell Johnson, Applied Eugenics, Popenoe defined feminism as a foolish effort to eliminate biological, political, and economic differentiation between the sexes. In that book, he predicted that feminism would benefit the race by inadvertently reducing the number of feminists within the population: “Under the new regime a large proportion of such women do not marry and accordingly have few if any children to inherit their defects. Hence the average level of maternal instinct of the women of America is likely to rise.” Popenoe grew concerned when the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (affording women the right to vote) strengthened the movement. He didn’t like how, after gaining suffrage, women began to demand access to other institutions, like higher education. He believed an education distracted a woman from her most important role (you guessed it: motherhood!). In Applied Eugenics, he and Johnson wrote that the typical college girl “had been rendered so cold and unattractive, so overstuffed intellectually and starved emotionally that a typical man does not desire to spend the rest of his life in her company.”

What if cautiously accepting certain institutions in spite of their nefarious roots is necessary to their transformation?

Popenoe also blamed Margaret Sanger for the degradation of the race. She had promised that birth control pills would weed out “idiots,” delinquents, alcoholics, and prisoners. In reality, Popenoe complained, the lower classes were breeding faster than ever, while middle- and upper-class women were taking the pill after two children or even before giving birth to any. (Sanger’s promotion of birth control among all classes and races eventually led to her excommunication from the eugenics movement, a fact that Thomas overlooks in his opinion.)

In 1930, Popenoe opened a counseling clinic to redress the devastating impact of feminism on the American family and instruct on the principles of good breeding. He wanted to ensure that only certain people got married and that, once married, these people stayed married and reproduced. Dubbed “Mr. Marriage,” Popenoe advised dating couples of their genetic risks and used a personality test to assess compatibility. He intervened in disputes and scolded individuals for disobeying gender conventions. In 1953, Popenoe founded and authored the popular advice column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” in Ladies’ Home Journal.

Thanks to Popenoe, marriage clinics popped up across the country, giving rise to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, which today represents over 24,000 marriage and family therapists. The long half-life of the early marriage industry contradicts popular belief that eugenics waned after World War II, when Hitler’s unpopularity and scientific challenges to the movement led to decreased involuntary sterilizations. As Wendy Kline explains in Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, eugenicists simply found alternative methods to achieve their means: talk therapy and “voluntary” sterilization, among others. After Popenoe died in 1979, his torch passed to figures like James Dobson, founder of the organization Focus on the Family and host of the radio program of the same name; Popenoe’s own son, David, who writes prolifically on traditional family values; and other crusaders for the nuclear family in churches and local communities.

But wouldn’t it be wrong, both logically and morally, to suggest that couples counseling doesn’t meaningfully help people today? Stigmas already prevent some individuals from pursuing this resource; discrediting it because of its dubious heritage could mean that even fewer people benefit from counseling — and therefore, from the social and economic advantages of marriage. Isn’t this scenario similar to what Popenoe had in mind when he initiated couples counseling? What if cautiously accepting certain institutions in spite of their nefarious roots is necessary to their transformation?

In the mid-century, religious and community leaders made up the vast majority of couples counselors; by the end of the century, psychologists, social workers, and trained professionals primarily fulfilled this role. With this changing of the guard, there was a shift in thinking about marriage: from purely moral terms to behavioral and medical ones. Even if moral biases continued to influence individual practitioners (as they do all human services), counselors increasingly considered research and evidence-based practices in the therapy setting. It is estimated that almost half of American couples today have attended counseling with a partner, with the majority finding it useful. Insofar as it allows individuals to repair relationships with their partners, family counseling can greatly improve people’s lives. Any critique of counseling should consider this reality. The intentions of its early proponents are far less relevant, and we do more to subvert those intentions by accepting counseling than by nixing it.

When we impose a dark history onto the present, whether for political or moral gains, we often just re-inflict the violence of that past on those we nominally seek to protect.

Thomas’s abortion-as-eugenics-via-birth-control argument fails precisely because he tries to cut-and-paste eugenics history, overlooking differences between eugenic visions of birth control and popular attitudes about birth control (including abortion) today. The irony, of course, is that Thomas’s genetic fallacy rehearses eugenicists’ hereditary logic, placing undue emphasis on origins. Whereas eugenicists dehumanized certain people because of their perceived poor roots, Thomas discredits birth control because the roots of the organization that championed it (Planned Parenthood) entangle with those of eugenics. Had he applied more scrutiny to his subjects, he might have acknowledged that many disabled persons and people of color support birth control and abortion, believing both practices to provide economic security and expand their civil liberties. If eugenicists imagined birth control weeding out certain groups, many members of marginalized communities regard it as a technology necessary to broader struggles for social justice. In Sanger’s day, African American scholars like W.E.B. Dubois thought the same, supporting birth control while adamantly opposing involuntary sterilization.

Had Thomas more carefully considered the differences between state-sponsored sterilization campaigns and abortion practices today, he might have realized the ways in which abortion actually does intersect with eugenics. Toward this end, he might have examined the pressures placed upon certain women to abort. Cuts to prenatal care under Medicaid or caps on welfare benefits based on family size are deliberate measures to prevent poor women from reproducing. This becomes very clear when lawmakers promoting such policies suggest we need to stop women from having babies just to get another few hundred dollars a month. The burden that the medical profession places upon disabled women to abort for non-medical reasons is also deserving of discussion. But rather than acknowledging these efforts to restrict women’s reproduction in the interests of society, Thomas targets the women who are subjected to them. In doing so, he forecloses meaningful conversation about how the logic of eugenics truly reverberates in our time.

Of course, Thomas is not the first to invoke a historical atrocity to discredit something or someone in the present, nor will he be the last. Last year, revelations of Hans Asperger’s Nazi connections prompted some to question the clinical significance of his findings on Asperger’s syndrome, as well as the use of the term to describe certain individuals on the autism spectrum. Like the invocation of eugenics, this instance raises questions about when — and how — to consider backstories when evaluating practices that seem neutral or even positive today. We need to properly contextualize past and present practices to avoid abstractions like Thomas’s. It is equally important to engage the voices of those impacted. When we impose a dark history onto the present, whether for political or moral gains, we often just re-inflict the violence of that past on those we nominally seek to protect.

***

Audrey Farley recently earned a PhD in English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied 20th-century American literature and culture. Her writing has appeared or will soon appear in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Narratively, Lady Science, Public Books, ASAP, and Marginalia Review of Books.

Editor: Ben Huberman
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel
Illustrator: Tom Peake