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Eugenics in America: A Brief History

Americaís experimentation with genetics as a tool for social change is not new. In the 1920s the United States became the world center of eugenic activity and social policy. From 1907-1960 more than 100,000 innocent Americans were sterilized in more than 30 states. In the 1930s and 1940s Hitlerís scientists took eugenics to the extreme - establishing human breeding farms for "Aryans," large-scale sterilization and euthanasia programs for the mentally and physically disabled, and death camps for the races they deemed "genetically inferior" or "unworthy life."

Both the American and German eugenics movements of the 1920s and 30s identified human beings as either hereditarily valuable or inferior. They established programs to purify the "race" of "lower grade" and "degenerate" groups, thus extending racism to include a new generic classification - the "genetically inferior." Not surprisingly, the targets always turned out to be the traditional victims of racism - Jews, Gypsies, Blacks, Indians, and other minorities.

After Hitlerís defeat, the American eugenics movement fell into disfavor, appealing primarily to the KKK, neo-Nazis, and a small groups of old-line scientists steeped in the racist theories of the pre-war period. In the 1960s their key spokesman was Stanford physicist William Shockley, who was the first to suggest offering cash incentives to people with low IQ scores who would agree to sterilization. He called his proposal the "voluntary sterilization bonus plan." Despite his status as a Noble laureate, Professor Shockley was widely regarded as a racist and a kook within the academic community. Nevertheless, he laid the foundation upon which the new eugenics movement would eventually be resurrected.

In 1974, Federal District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell estimated that "over the last few years" between 100,000 and 150,000 low-income persons were sterilized under federally funded programs. Ruling on behalf of plaintiffs in a class action suit, Judge Gesell stated that "an indefinite number" of those sterilized were "improperly coerced" into accepting sterilization. Judge Gesell observed that "the dividing line between family planning and eugenics was murky" (Relf v. Weinberger et. al. U.S. District Court of D.C., March 15, 1974). In may cases welfare patients were told that they could lose their benefits if they did not submit to the sterilization procedure. On September 21, 1975 The New York Times Magazine reported that doctors in major cities were routinely performing hysterectomies on mostly black welfare recipients as a form of sterilization, a practice that came to be known euphemistically among medical insiders as the "Mississippi appendectomy."

Today those who advocate eugenics have access to far more sophisticated technologies than those of their pre-war predecessors. For example, Norplant, a drug approved by the FDA in 1990, provides an alternative to permanent sterilization for women by preventing pregnancy for up to five years. A popular proposal to reduce the birthrate among welfare recipients and unwed teens is to induce them, through monetary incentives of the threat of a loss of benefits, to have Norplant surgically implanted in their upper arm. In 1991, Kansas representative Kerry Patrick defended a proposal to offer $500 to any welfare mother who accepted Norplant, saying the program "has the potential to save the taxpayers millions of their hard-earned dollars. Something must be done to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies..." (The New York Times, Feb. 9, 1991).

In 1994, legislators in Connecticut and Florida introduced bills that would provide cash bonuses for welfare recipients who accepted Norplant. Florida and Colorado have introduced incentive programs for men to accept sterilization. the Florida bill would offer $400 to men living below the poverty line for undergoing a vasectomy; the Colorado bill would allow criminals early release. While none of these bills has yet become law, the momentum for eugenic solutions is growing. If current trends continue, we can expect to see such sterilization programs gain legal sanction across America.

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