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Eugenics: The Pseudoscience

Eugenics is and was the pseudoscientific rationale for racial apartheid in social policy in late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States of America and other western nations.  The American version of Eugenics served as a template for Nazi era scientific justification for discrimination against non-Aryans with the subsequent implementation of mass murder of  Jewish Europeans and others.
Medical and legal historians involved in the study of Eugenics suggest its scientific foundations were established with the publication of Charles Darwin’s ORIGINS OF SPECIES in 1859. This most important work on animal natural selection reasoned that the ability of a particular animal species to not only survive, but also prosper, had a genetic basis. That is, those animals less well genetically endowed were doomed for extinction due to some flaw in their biologic makeup. In short, because of nature not nurture, the survival of a particular species was either successful or a failure.
As a result of Charles Darwin’s work in documenting the role of evolution in the survival of various animal species via natural selection, racists at the time adopted his scientific observations and applied them to human events. Hence, the term ‘social Darwinist’.  Eugenic is a word of Greek origin meaning; “eu -good ; genic-to generate.”  British biologist, Sir Francis Galton, who was a first cousin to the noted Charles Darwin, first coined the term eugenic in 1883.  Galton’s research focused largely on the – inheritability of intelligence and IQ, and later, race. He advocated selected breeding of humans to improve the human race. In short, ” positive ” Eugenics. More to the point, he felt social programs promoting the viability of the poor could eventually lead to the deterioration of a society. In addition, the so-called rediscovery of Gregory Mendel’s work in the laws of heredity gained widespread attention by racists masquerading as ‘social Darwinists ‘ and later as eugenicists. Mendel’s work on fruit flies formed the basis for the single gene theory in human behaviors, in that single genes formed the basis for either genius or morons. Environment or nurture was less important than nature. Of course, such simplistic interpretation of Mendel’s work with the hope of applying them to human events have been soundly discredited even to this day.
At the turn of the last century, eugenics as a social and scientific movement had become global. Social Darwinists in Europe and the United States of America advocated negative and positive eugenic programs because they felt the process of natural selection as advocated by Charles Darwin’s theory was too slow to affect population dynamics.  So active measures were needed to implement their racist agenda.  The Eugenics Record Office opened its doors in Cold Harbor Springs, Long Island, New York in 1910 under the direction of University of Chicago biologist, Dr. Charles Davenport, with the financial backing of the Carnegie Institute and others. As a result of this organization and the need to actively engage and sustain American apartheid as a legitimate institution, programs were begun on both the public and legislative fronts to influence policies and gain support for eugenic inspired actions. Among the many actions taken, were negative eugenic programs limiting child births in the poor, and curtailing reproduction via state sanctioned castrations of criminals, epileptics, alcoholics and feebleminded persons.  In the American south and large northern cities, blacks were the targets of sterilization programs.

Most importantly and equally disturbing, were the programs instituted that affected black Americans. A particular program developed by the Birth Control Federation of America under the direction of its founder, Margaret Sanger, and other prominent black Americans in 1939 was the NEGRO PROJECT.  Its aim was to limit the birth rates of Southern Blacks because they felt these blacks were least capable or fit to care for children. Of course, there were no discussions regarding the extreme impoverished and oppressive conditions blacks had to endured at that time. The argument by Social Darwinist and/or eugenics revolved around nature rather than nurture. It was felt that blacks were genetically inferior to Europeans. Consequently, their mere presence was a threat to the purity of the racial stock of Americans of European ancestry and ultimately they, the blacks, would become extinct due to their biologic weaknesses.  Remember, blacks were only 30 years out of the most wicked system of human exploitation in the history of mankind, American chattel slavery, and were ill prepared, for the most part, to fully enjoy or compete to reaped the fruits of the burgeoning industrial revolution.


During this same time period during the early 20th century, the Nazis had assumed power in Germany and instituted their version of an eugenics program. The Nazi biomedical science program included the “Nazi Racial Hygiene Programs.” This program had three components; the Sterilization law of 1933, the Nuremberg Laws which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and forbade marriage between Jews and non-Jews and the euthanasia program of 1939 called the T-4 Program. (The latter program was responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 German citizens, including children.  Nuremberg later became famous for being the location where nazi war criminals were tried.)

The Supreme court affirmed the Eugenic movement by legalizing forced sterilization of persons felt to be imbeciles in the BUCK v BELL CASE of 1927. Eugenic commissions and laws were soon formed and/or enacted in at least 28 states. The result of which led to wholesale sterilization of thousands of black women in the south and some northern states by a deceptive but effective surgery called the Mississippi Appendectomy. During this surgical procedure black women had their Uteruses removed unknowingly. (See Dorothy Roberts’s book, “Killing the Black Body”) . Eugenic sterilization of black women did not stop, in large part, until the 1960’s as a result of work by Senator Ted Kennedy and others.  In addition, laws against black and white intermarriage were enacted in over 30 American states as of 1940.  These American anti miscegenation laws formed the basis of the Nuremberg Laws of the Nazi regime in Germany.


Some argue that the ideas and notions of eugenics are just as prevalent today as it was during its heyday in the early twentieth century. We now have ‘family welfare caps’ which have decreased the number of children that welfare recipients can have in states such as New Jersey and Georgia (Washington Post- 6-9-98 and the USA Today 4.-20-98 respectively) . Such family cap laws are in effect in over 20 states. Moreover, some welfare recipients have either had increases in abortions or have had the long acting controversial drug NORPLANT implanted into their arms or more recently, DEPO PROVERA injections. The contraceptive Norplant is active for 5 years but has many side effects and is predominantly used in young black females. Depo Provera is active for an estimated 12 weeks. Neither provides protection from HIV/AIDS or any other STD (Sexually Transmitted Disease). (A class action lawsuit regarding norplant is now in progress involving some 50,000 women.)

Norplant has an interesting origin in that it was initially developed by the Population Council. The Population Council was founded in 1952 by John D. Rockefeller, 3rd with the help of Frederick Osborn. As Roberts points out in her book mentioned above, Osborn served as a key eugenic strategist and long time officer in the American Eugenic Society.  With the founding of the Population Council, Osborn felt his eugenic ideas and policies could be carried out in a more effective fashion via the Council’s birth control research.  Osborn would serve as the council’s 1st president and member of the board of trustees. This my friends, is the history of Norplant and the evolution of Eugenics.

Anti-birth policies such as family caps and Norplant could easily be characterized as negative eugenics programs. Moreover, the demographics of abortion in the US could be interpreted as a negative eugenic measure when you examined the rate and number of black women undergoing this procedure on a yearly basis. Currently black women undergo a disproportionate, 430,000 abortions per year. David Mastio writing in the USA Today of 1-21-98 notes that “As a result of abortion the racial shift in America that will make America majority-minority by midway through the next century….would have happened much sooner if we had been not aborting blacks and other minorities at several times the rate of whites.”

There is a concept in population jargon called the ‘replacement level’, which translates into fertility rates.  It is generally defined as the minimum amount of children women of a given population must have to sustain, at least, biologically, that particular people. Black female fertility rates are now at an all time low of 2.2 (excluding Hispanics). Which means that African Americans are having the minimum amount babies to sustain themselves. To get below a fertility rate of 2.1 means that within 4-5 generations a particular population, in actual numbers, begins to shrink.  Black female fertility is now at a historic low of 70.8 babies per 1000 women, as opposed to 117 babies per 1000 for Mexican women here in the US.

For white women, the fertility rate is 1.7 (excluding Hispanics) which is below the replacement level of 2.1. Consequently, right-wing, and largely, white conservative writers have been bemoaning this significant fact. (Read- Ben Wattenberg’s book, “The Birth Dearth” ; The New York Times of July 10, 1998; Washington Post July 7 1998; Washington Times of February 7, 1998; USA Today-April 17, 1997; and The Wall Street Journal-October 16 1997. All of the previously mentioned essays and a lead article (NYT) bemoan the fact that women of the industrialized nations ( translated-white women ) are not having the requisite number of children to keep their population proportion at a sustainable, if not growing level. So from this perspective of very low replacement levels in western or European women, the fertility industry in the opinion of some, would be a prime example of a ” Positive Eugenic Program” in a most extreme sense. Here, the fertility industry caters largely to the infertility problems of white women. However, black women. who have an infertility rate of almost twice that of whites, are virtually whited out in the many news reports and human interest stories on infertility concerns.  Media, electronic or otherwise, plays a tremendous role in either promoting pro- birth propaganda by portraying positive motherhood as largely white. Examine if you will, magazine covers and pregnancy detection commercials, to name a few. However, black female are rarely portrayed positively, if at all. Normally what you see is either a story of a drug addicted black women or some young black woman on welfare with many children being left alone at home while she, the mother, is out partying.  The psychological effect of these images are devastating to young black females in particular, for they either promote motherhood in a positive fashion in one group or denigrate the mothering potential in another. The impact of this propaganda is measured, I believe, in today’s birth dynamics as outlined earlier. There are many more examples of both negative and positive eugenic programs too numerous to list here. The fact of the matter is that modern day manifestations of Eugenics are there for all to see if you can decipher the messages and actions. What today’s proponents of Eugenics count on is the lack of knowledge by those citizens extremely at risk for such ghoulish notions enacted under the guise of well meaning concerns like anti-affirmative action measures that focuses on race not gender, welfare family caps, long-acting contraceptive implants or injections, abortion, crime and the prison industrial complex, to name a few. The sad part is they are correct in their assessment on this lack of historical knowledge. Ask any high school student, or adult for that matter, to discuss the issue of Eugenics with you historically, with some present day examples and the response would probably be sadly disappointing. Those who forget their history are doomed to relive it in one way or another!


1. Life Magazine; April 1998. Pages 38-50.
2. Journal of the American Medical Association; November 27,1996. Special Communications. Pages 1657-1682.
3. Scientific American. June 1993. Pages 122- 131.
4. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Eugenics. Pages 916-917.
5. New York Times; Editorial Notebook -The Bell Curve Revisited. October 11,1997.

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