Bioethics Blogs

A Cautionary Reminder

I recently had the opportunity to give a guest lecture on the topic of eugenics. As I was reading and preparing for the talk, I was struck with the thought of how quickly it is we forget our past, especially when it is unattractive. When we think of the topic of eugenics, many of us almost instinctively think of Nazi Germany – and rightfully so – as approximately 400,000 forced sterilizations took place as a part of eugenic practices. However, we need to remember our own past, as well, where in over 30 states we enforced eugenic sterilization laws leading to 65,000 people being forcibly sterilized between 1907 and 1974. The reasons for these forced sterilizations in the U.S. were many, but predominantly reflect devaluation of individuals who were poor and institutionalized.

The goal of the eugenics movement sounded benign enough, and perhaps even altruistic: to better human welfare and reduce infant mortality, yet it resulted in a dark reality. People were classified and valued based on their intelligence, their physical characteristics, their genealogy, and based on their social value. This valuation was promoted in popular culture and enforced at law (read the case of Buck v. Bell, for an example). I want to remind us of this not to point out how far we’ve come, or to lay blame in the past, but as a cautionary reminder. Discrimination based on race, class, appearance, etc., still exists. Although we no longer have eugenics based forcible sterilization laws in place as we did in the past, discrimination and valuation of other human beings is still very real.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.