Science, Eugenics, and Bioethics

By Richard Weikart

In the late nineteenth century, a movement emerged among scientists and physicians that advocated the improvement of human heredity. Francis Galton, a respected British scientist who founded this movement, named this new field of endeavor eugenics. Galton claimed that this field was founded on scientific principles. He first formulated his ideas about eugenics while reading the Origin of Species, written by his cousin Charles Darwin. In that book, Darwin argued that hereditary change together with natural selection would produce new species. Because eugenics was based on Darwinian theory, many eugenicists feared that modern institutions, such as medicine and social welfare, were spawning biological degeneration among humans. By softening the struggle for existence, modern society allowed the “inferior” to reproduce. The purpose of eugenics was to reverse this degenerative trend, so humans could foster evolutionary progress instead.

The eugenics movement spread rapidly after 1900 throughout the Western world, especially among scientists and physicians. Though eugenics advocates embraced a variety of political positions, it was especially popular among progressives. In Germany the eugenics movement took a major step forward in 1900 when the Krupp Prize competition offered a large monetary award for the best book-length answer to the question: “What do we learn from the principles of biological evolution in regard to domestic political developments and legislation of states?” Wilhelm Schallmayer won the competition with his book, Heredity and Selection (1903), which forcefully advocated eugenics. The physician Alfred Ploetz organized the German eugenics movement by founding the first eugenics journal in the world in 1904 and the following year establishing the first eugenics society in the world. In the United States, the geneticist Charles Davenport became the key organizer of the eugenics movement by establishing the Eugenics Record Office on Long Island in 1910. He successfully solicited funds for his research from major American business interests, such as the Carnegie Foundation.

By the 1920s the eugenics movement was so well established that many universities in the United States and Europe offered courses on eugenics. Galton had established a professorship at the University of London upon his death in 1911 to promote eugenics. In 1923 the University of Munich established a medical professorship in racial hygiene (the German term for eugenics), and in 1927 Germany founded the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Progressive medical elites in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere throughout the world imbibed eugenics along with Western medical knowledge.

While some eugenicists focused mainly on the science of human heredity, many simultaneously promoted programs and policies to control human reproduction. By propagating new ideas about sexuality and by pressing for legislation to control reproduction, scientists began promoting a new ethic or new morality. Many early eugenicists based their ethic on evolution, calling eugenics “applied evolution.” Whatever promoted evolutionary progress was good, in their view, and anything leading to biological decline was evil. Thus, health and biological vitality became the standards by which they judged all actions and policies. Often, their new morality was in conflict with traditional Christian morality.

Eugenicists did not always agree among themselves about what measures should be taken to control human reproduction. Some stressed positive eugenics (i.e., measures to encourage the “better” humans to reproduce more prolifically.) This could include tax breaks or even subsidies for the upper classes and the intelligentsia to have more children. Embedded in many of these proposals was the assumption that the upper classes and intelligentsia were biologically superior to the masses, especially the working classes. Most eugenicists also supported negative eugenics (i.e., efforts to suppress the reproduction of “inferior” people, usually defined as the congenitally disabled, habitual criminals, and those of allegedly inferior races, such as blacks, American Indians, etc.)

Some eugenicists hoped that marriage restrictions or permanent segregation (i.e., incarceration) of those deemed unfit to reproduce would achieve some positive results. However, a new method of controlling reproduction-sterilization-became especially popular among eugenics advocates in the early twentieth century. The United States passed the first compulsory sterilization legislation in the world in 1907, when Indiana decided to force some inmates of its prisons and mental institutions to submit to sterilization. Many other states followed suit, and in 1927 the US Supreme Court declared that compulsory sterilization laws were permissible. By 1940 over 35,000 people had been compulsorily sterilized in the United States. The Nazi regime implemented an even more vigorous sterilization campaign beginning in 1934, which resulted in the forced sterilization of about 400,000 people.

Since many eugenicists were racist, they also introduced measures to restrict the reproduction of those deemed inferior racial stock. Some eugenicists in the United States succeeded in getting anti-miscegenation laws passed as a way to try to improve human heredity. They also exulted in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from countries with allegedly inferior biological quality.

Some radical eugenicists even advocated infanticide or involuntary “euthanasia” to get rid of “inferior” persons. In 1870, the famous Darwinian biologist in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, became one of the first intellectuals in modern Europe to seriously propose that infants with congenital problems be killed. By the early twentieth century, prominent figures, such as Jack London, Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, H. G. Wells, and Julian Huxley, supported the legalization of euthanasia, many of them because they viewed it as a eugenics measure. In its zeal to rid Germany of those considered biologically “inferior,” the Nazi regime implemented a program in 1939 (after World War II began) to kill institutionalized persons with congenital illnesses, especially those with mental illnesses, but also the deaf, blind, and others. Altogether the Nazis probably killed about 200,000 disabled people by the end of World War II.

The response of the churches to the rise of eugenics varied considerably. Main-line Protestants, especially those with more liberal theology, prided themselves in adapting to modern trends, and in general they eagerly adopted eugenics ideology. The American Eugenics Society received hundreds of entries in the eugenics sermon contests they sponsored in the 1920s. The most vocal and organized opposition to eugenics, especially to sterilization and euthanasia, came from the Catholic Church, though many conservative Protestants also opposed eugenics.

Eugenics, at least as an organized movement, died out in the mid-twentieth century for a variety of reasons. Biological determinism was in decline in the mid-twentieth century, especially in the fields of psychology and anthropology, but in many other fields too. Also, critics of eugenics were able to capitalize on the shoddy quality of some of the science underpinning eugenics. Nazi atrocities brought eugenics into greater disrepute. Finally, the call for freedom of reproductive choice that accompanied the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s contradicted the compulsory measures advocated by earlier progressives.

In the past 10 to 20 years many dozens of books have appeared on the history of eugenics. This intense interest is probably spawned by fears of a resurgence of eugenics under a different guise. Indeed, new reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization, amniocentesis, and genetic screening, have presented us with new prospects for a more individualized form of eugenics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Parents for decades have routinely aborted infants with serious disabilities. More recently it has become possible to select a fertilized egg with specific genetic traits before it is implanted into the mother’s womb. Some scientists and physicians are forthrightly arguing that individuals should artificially select the traits of their offspring, though critics warn about the dangers of “designer babies.”

Human cloning will likely be a reality in the near future, and with present heated debates over the morality of cloning and stem cell research, the history of eugenics is a cautionary tale. Scientists and physicians in the early twentieth century who supported eugenics often denied the validity of Christian (or any other) ethics on their research and even on their public policy proposals. Eugenics was supposedly an objective, scientific panacea for a myriad of ills, both physical and social. We should take control of our future, eugenics advocates argued, to shape a human destiny free from hereditary illness and crime. Ethical considerations were spurned as detrimental to progress and human health.

Many purveyors of genetic technologies today sound remarkably similar to earlier eugenicists. They claim scientific imprimatur for their views, reject ethical restrictions on their research, make health the highest arbiter of morality, and devalue the lives of the disabled. They promise great advances to help humanity, but they do not consider or understand that by destroying individuals they deem “inferior,” they are perpetrating gross injustice.


Published March 30, 2016