>Subject: Wired News :Blaming the 'Defective' People
>Date: Mon, 26 Mar 2001 23:51:03 -0800 (PST)
> From Wired News, available online at:
>Blaming the 'Defective' People
>by Kristen Philipkoski
>2:00 a.m. Mar. 26, 2001 PST
>Many things concern us during an economic downturn: stock prices,
>savings and job security, to name a few. Some historians say we can add one
>more to the list: eugenics.
>Believing the human species could be improved through the control of
>hereditary factors in mating, eugenicists during the Great Depression
>blamed immigrants, the mentally disabled and incarcerated people for
>society's woes -- and advocated the sterilization of people they considered
>Now that economic times are turning bad again, some wonder whether the
>eugenics movement, in one form or another, may return.
>"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," said Paul Lombardo, an attorney and
>director at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia.
>Eugenics was supposedly based on scientific theories that more recent
>genetic studies have proven false. Lombardo worries that if today's
>economic problems get worse, eugenics -- not as it was in the '20s and '30s
>but in another form -- could reappear.
>He cites the recent California political campaigns, where one of the
>major themes was to close the borders and enforce immigration restrictions
>"We do not need to look too far back in time to see ideas embraced by
>the eugenicists rearing their ugly heads again," Lombardo said. "If the
>economy really dives, my bet is it won't be long before the same kind of
>bigotry that percolated up into political debate in the 1990s comes back
>The first legislative documentation of eugenics was a law passed in
>Indiana in 1907 that allowed the involuntary sterilization of patients in
>mental institutions, whom eugenicists called "defective people."
>"The rationale was, if these people have become wards of the state
>because they're genetically defective ... (it makes) most economic sense to
>sterilize and cut off these problems at the source," Garland Allen, a
>professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, said.
>By 1913, more than 29 states had laws against interracial marriages.
>Penalties included fines up to $2,000 and a prison sentence of up to 10
>Papers with titles like "The Deviation of Idiot Boys from Normal Boys
>in Bodily Proportion," and "Do Races Differ in Mental Capacity?" were
>published in the Eugenical News.
>In 1927, the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell upheld a ruling that
>institutions could sterilize people considered "mentally defective" without
>their consent. Lombardo is writing a book about the case.
>By 1930, at least 15,000 Americans had been involuntarily sterilized.
>The number totaled nearly 50,000 before the last eugenics law was taken off
>the books in the 1970s.
>Even in 1927 there were many serious critics of eugenics, Lombardo
>said. Still, because those beliefs were supposedly based on science, they
>became part of the law for over 50 years in the United States.
>Genetic science was respected at the time because animal and plant
>genetics -- i.e., breeding -- was making great strides. Breeding humans was
>the next genetic revolution, some scientists thought. The idea was taken
>seriously enough to feature "best bred" families at state fairs alongside
>the strongest cattle.
>"The eugenic argument, which claimed to be a science, only gave a sort
>of scientific gloss to a lot of ideas that were floating around in society
>that essentially had some economic basis," said David Micklos, director of
>the DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in Long Island,
>New York. The Cold Spring lab was a hotbed for eugenics in its heyday, and
>housed the first eugenics institute.
>Blaming other races or the mentally disabled for economic problems got
>a de facto stamp of approval from this so-called science.
>Today, with the completion of the human genome map, genetic science is
>once again being put on a pedestal.
>"The current hype that surrounds genetics will provide plenty of fuel
>for those who wish to push neo-eugenic schemes, whether or not they use the
>discredited description of 'eugenics,'" Lombardo said.
>Allen said that like in the '20s and '30s, increasing numbers of
>researchers today are wrongly blaming criminal and other negative bahavior
>"My reading of the evidence is that it's no better to make those
>claims today than it was 75 years ago," he said. "The data is very
>Steven Seldon, director of the Center for Curriculum Development at
>the University of Maryland doesn't think we have to worry about eugenics,
>per se, coming back. However, during an economic downturn, the rich will
>have more opportunities to take advantage of research breakthroughs.
>Other researchers, like Micklos, are less worried about the
>possibilities modern-day eugenics presents in the wake of an economic
>"I don't think there's an exact coupling between the Great Depression
>and eugenics," Micklos said. "Most of the politics (of it) were set before
>the market crash."
>Americans today are so ethnically blended, Micklos said, that it would
>be difficult to point the finger at any one group.
>"It's harder to try to restrict the activities of some group by
>ethnicity these days," Micklos said. "Everybody looks at themselves and
>says, 'I'm really mixed up.'"
>Others believe that the scientific community would come to the rescue.
>"Scientists are too likely today to speak out against any compulsory
>state policy that limits the reproductive rights or freedom of people based
>on their alleged abilities," said Elof Carlson, a professor of biology at
>Stony Brook State University in New York, and author of The Unfit, a book
>on eugenics in Nazi Germany.
>One thing is certain. People in the United States will be increasingly
>exasperated if the economy continues to decline.
>"Some of the reason you might worry more is because more people are
>cranky," Micklos said. "I'm crankier now than I was."
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