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I Was a Eugenicist

When we hear someone mention eugenics today the most common image brought to mind is of Nazi Germany and the death camps. While this is indeed one of the most well known historical examples of eugenics gone horribly wrong, it is far from the only or even most recent example. The concept of eugenics has been around since at least ancient Greece where philosophers such as Plato discussed ideas such as state run programs to strengthen certain classes in his Republic, yet the modern version that many of us know about was brought to life by Francis Galton, British scientist and cousin to Charles Darwin. His goal was to create better humans through scientific management of mating, something that was taken up by many scientists and policy makers in the early part of the 20th century.

There were two major parts to eugenics, the positive (encouraging reproduction of certain peoples) and the negative (discouraging reproduction of certain peoples) in this goal of creating a better human race. While the goal of the negative side was well intentioned in that its goal was the eradication of certain diseases, disabilities, social and behavioral conditions, and illnesses that occurred within certain populations or were more prevalent in certain ethnic groups, the good intentions quickly gave way to things such as forced sterilizations and attachment of negative beliefs to specific ethnic groups and races. I will include links below for further reading on the history of eugenics and the movements that occurred in the USA up until 1981 for anyone interested.

I want to discuss my fall into the trap of eugenics and my subsequent struggle to remove myself from the siren call of a belief that would have meant the death of my own children.

I grew up being reminded daily that I was neurodivergent, either due to therapy appointments that started around the time I was six years old, through medication management that started around the age of seven, or due to the constant dealings with my peers and community where I found myself not fitting in and often being bullied for being “weird” or “r*tarded.” By the time I’d reached high school I’d bought into a belief I’d only heard mentioned by adults in conversations and in various media programs. I didn’t know that what was being discussed was eugenics, I just knew in my heart that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce…and I was one of them.

I used to talk about how there should be IQ tests and skills test for people before they were allowed to have kids, how if you knew you had a mental illness or some sort of condition that was hereditary you shouldn’t be allowed to have kids. While my belief was that the person having the kid wouldn’t be able to properly care for the child, and thus that duty would fall to the person’s parents or the state, I could see that my words were resonating with several people and as I got into college, it was resonating with a lot of older adults as well as students my age.

It felt weird having people interacting with me in positive and agreeable ways when I was talking about what boiled down to the sterilization or enforcement of “breeding regulations” that I myself would fail, but as someone who even today struggles with social cues and who has to constantly deal with the draw of “I’m getting positive attention, they like me!” I didn’t realize that I was edging dangerously close to some of the Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in my area with my talks. I was just grateful that people weren’t openly looking down on me or treating me like some sort of “freak” like I’d become used to growing up.

While my escape from the belief has been a long and gradual progress, my “come to Jesus” moment was very sudden and very frightening.

I was working at the Grand Canyon in 2003 when I was discussing the view that we really should make sure certain people shouldn’t reproduce, either through allowing sterilization procedures (something I desperately wanted) or through ensuring methods of birth control being readily available. I remember mentioning how people who still had kids even after showing they shouldn’t, such as (I regret using this term) trailer trash junkies and glue eaters, should be punished by having any government help stripped from them and if they wanted it back they would have to prove they could no longer have kids. Their children would receive care and food as it wasn’t the child’s fault, but everything the parent used or relied on from that point onward would be carefully monitored by a case worker and the child would be taken away from them until they proved to be a fit parent.

The man I was discussing this with had been nodding along the whole time, and when I’d finished he said, “That’s why I say we should just kill them and be done with it. Put the kid out of its misery and put the parents to work or kill them as well to pay back their debt to society.”

It was like I’d been slapped in the face by how closely I’d been courting the very part of eugenics I’d frowned on and looked down upon once I’d learned about Nazi Germany. I gave a small laugh in response to his statements and excused myself from the conversation. I think I went back to work, but I honestly could not tell you what I’d done for the rest of the day because I was completely absorbed in my own thoughts. I had constantly justified to myself that I wasn’t like those people, I only wanted the positive aspects of eugenics because I didn’t want to kill anyone! I wasn’t a bad guy!

Over the years I have spent countless hours studying the history of eugenics and the views held within, looking then to society and how the beliefs are still resting on the surface, looking harmless and even beneficial to those around us while hiding the darker and dangerous side underneath. On social media I see posts about how people “need a license to fish but not to have kids” or articles looking down on single parents, talking about how if there was just some way to control who got to breed we wouldn’t be dealing with this so called problem. I listen to people around town talking about the drain on society caused by people living on disability and the mutterings of how we should “lock them away somewhere” or prevent them from breeding another generation.

While it’s not outright called eugenics in everyday society except by certain groups, the signs are still there and have become so interwoven into our very lives that most people don’t even realize what they’re saying when they make statements like that. Even I still struggle with it and I catch myself muttering how “certain people shouldn’t breed” under my breath when dealing with problematic individuals or watching a pair of young parents pushing their screaming children through the store late at night. I don’t know their stories, but I’m automatically assuming that they should have been stopped from having kids because of how ingrained the beliefs have become in not only myself, but in our very culture. Even though I am actively trying to change my views, they are still there and are so pervasive due to the constant reinforcement that it often feels impossible to break away from them or even change them.

Even though I know that my own daughter would never have been born if the eugenics programs were still going, even knowing that my step daughters would have been forcibly sterilized due to their medical histories, I still struggle with the knowledge that I hold these detrimental and harmful beliefs. While I stated in my title that I was a eugenicist, in many ways I still find myself trying to escape the very views I had embraced in my youth.

For further reading on the history of eugenics, the movement, and what remains of the philosophies of eugenics, please check out these following links:

Eugenics- Facts and Summary
Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs
Introduction to Eugenics
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy-Eugenics

America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement
The Eugenics Archive
The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations
Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States

Can We Cure Genetic Diseases Without Slipping Into Eugenics?
The Long Shadow of the Eugenics Movement
The new eugenics: Why blaming mental illness and addiction on genetics is so damaging