Eugenics in the United States: The Forgotten Movement

By: Samantha Schexnayder

“Eugenics in the United States: The Forgotten Movement”

Eugenics as a concept has been around for ages and has continuously evolved in its execution over time. Thinkers such as Plato and Galton as well as leaders such as Hitler have all supported the use of science to improve the human race. Some of these uses are more prevalent than others, such as the programs implemented by Hitler in Nazi Germany. However, an often-overlooked section in the history of eugenics is the movement in the United States. The movement in the early part of the twentieth century exhibits an abuse of the prestige of science and its devastating impact on history. These reprehensible acts are no longer in practice in America, but the concept of eugenics continues, continuously evolving with the advancement of technology and science. This evolution leads to momentous questions that plague society about how eugenics should be handled in a modern world.   

Eugenics emerged as a discipline in the late 1800s, with Francis Galton at the forefront.  The concept of eugenics, however, has existed for far longer than that. The term eugenics comes from the Greek word eugenes, eu meaning “well” and genos meaning “born” (Garver). The Greek philosopher, Plato, was an adamant supporter of the idea that the government should control the process of human reproduction. He, like many others, drew from the idea of selective breeding in animals, saying that the same could and should be done for the human species. He even proposed that the selection should be performed using a fake lottery system. In doing this, the government would avoid offending individuals as they would be unaware of the principles for selection. The ever-growing dominance of monotheistic religions stifled the advance of eugenicist ideas like Plato’s. However, in the modern age, with the emergence of thinkers such as Charles Darwin and the rise of modern science as a challenge to traditional religious belief, the concept of Eugenics began to gain traction.

Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883 (Whitney 107). He describes eugenics as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn quality of a race; also, with those that develop them to the utmost advantage” (Galton).  Galton applied the theory of evolution, which was developed by his cousin, Charles Darwin, to advance his study. He used Darwin’s work, On the Origin of Species, to describe how human behavior was deterring the process of natural selection. The theory was used to push the idea that humans are no different than animals and that they too should follow the process of natural selection. Galton explained that because humans care for the sick and feeble, they are allowing them to procreate and pass down their negative attributes, thus, allowing for the deterioration of the human species. Galton supported the practice of positive eugenics, meaning the act of encouraging those with good traits to reproduce. It was not until later when positive eugenics did not produce adequate results that the practices of negative eugenics, like forced sterilization, took off.  Galton’s works never truly took off in Great Britain. However, it gained great popularity in the United States.

Eugenics “first flourished as a scientific endeavor in the United States and resulted in one of the largest eugenic movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (MacKellar 26). The first recorded eugenic experiment was at the Perfectionist Community of Oneida, New York; the leader, John H. Noyes, was influenced by Darwin’s Origin of the Species, as well as Galton’s early work on eugenics. He used this inspiration to create the experiments that resulted in what he termed as ‘stirpiculture’, the cultivation of high-quality human stock (MacKellar 26).  He held a multitude of these experiments which resulted in around fifty-eight children, known as ‘stirpicults’. Noyes was not the only Christian minister to implement eugenicist programs, many others began restricting the marriages between individuals with negative mental or physical traits. States soon began enacting marriage laws that prevented certain types of people from marrying, specifically those with mental disabilities; the laws later expanded to include minorities.  On a federal level, immigration laws were implemented for eugenicist purposes. In 1917, a government statute excluded “all idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, [and] insane persons” from immigration to the United States (qtd. in MacKellar 27). The first sterilization law was put into place in Indiana in 1907. The law gave institutions the right to sterilize criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles that were housed in their facilities. Throughout the 1900s, forced sterilization laws were being implemented by states across the country; individuals considered “mentally deficient,” those who had some form of physical disability, poor people, promiscuous women, and minorities were being forcefully sterilized (Supreme). By 1927, twenty-four other states had implemented legislature similar to Indiana’s. California had the most prolific programs, “performing 4,636 sterilizations and castrations between 1907 and 1925, reaching a total of 9,930 by 1935” (qtd. in MacKellar 28).

The eugenics movement in the United States came to a climax in 1927 when a woman named Carrie Buck challenged the law in Virginia. Buck was told she would be sterilized for being “feeble-minded.” However, Buck fought back and brought the issue before the courts. The case made its way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the court ruling eight to one against Buck. The court ruled that the state does have the right to forcibly sterilize a person they deem unfit to procreate (Supreme).  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. concluded the majority opinion, by asserting that it was Bucks’ duty to society to not produce any more feeble-minded individuals such as herself, stating, “three generations of imbeciles are enough” (BUCK).   This case was a huge victory for the eugenics movement in the United States and solidified its power.

American advocates of eugenics systematically advanced their ideas with the eugenic continuum. This continuum is followed by nearly every eugenics movement around the world. It consists of five steps in escalating severity: differentiation, alienation, segregation, sterilization, and elimination. The first step, differentiation, requires convincing one group that they are different from another in a significant way. This was enforced through education in the United States, using programs like the ERO, Eugenic Records Office, to study families and educate the public on how to create “family pedigrees” (Markfield 25). Contest and advertisements were also used to help distinguish those with good traits from those with negative ones.  The next step in the continuum is alienation. This step builds upon the first one by saying that the differences established are a problem that makes the individuals “incompatible with the dominant social order” (Markfield 25). Eugenicists believed that alienation was necessary to prevent those with undesirable traits from passing them down to future generations. But isolation was not enough, they believed the unfit should also be exposed as dangerous for the sake of humanity. In 1911, a list was created by a group of American eugenicists, which outlined 10 categories that should be alienated to prevent them from procreating. The list included the feebleminded, the pauper class, alcoholics, criminals, epileptics, the insane, the constitutionally weak class, those predisposed to specific diseases, the deformed, and those with defective organs such as the blind, deaf, and mute.

Following alienation in the continuum is segregation, which takes the continuum from the realm of eugenic theory to the realm of policy. This step was not hard to institute because many forms of segregation were already in place in society. Along with racial segregation, those deemed to be mentally ill were often housed in insane asylums, which kept them distant from normal society. However, this step was advanced further by a proposal in the early twentieth century that called for the internment of those deemed unfit during their fertile years. Another form of segregation was the immigration laws that were implemented during the early twentieth century as well as stringent marriage laws. These laws were used to maintain a racially pure Anglo-Saxon people in the United States, which became increasingly more difficult with westward expansion and the influx of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

While segregation helped their objective, eugenicists realized that it was extremely costly to house the unfit. An alternative to this was sterilization; it was much cheaper and guaranteed that the inept could not procreate and pass down their unwanted genes. Sterilization was extremely popular among American eugenicists and doctors quickly began performing on patients. Soon, legislation began appearing at the state level to permit the sterilization of individuals and eventually thirty-two states legalized involuntary sterilization of certain populations.

Some eugenicists believed that sterilization was not enough to adequately protect humanity; they thought that elimination of the unfit was necessary to ensure that their negative attributes would not be passed on to future generations. While this may appear drastic, capital punishment was already a common practice at the time. Criminality, in the eyes of American eugenicists, was similar to blindness and was thought to be passed down from generation to generation. Thus, the execution of criminals and others deemed unfit was an appropriate way to stop the spread and with new innovations, the execution of large numbers of the unfit would be easier to accomplish. Inventions such as the “killing chamber,” which was originally designed to kill stray animals humanely, piqued the interest of prominent eugenicists at the time. However, this practice never gained the same level of traction in the United States as the previous steps in the continuum.

The movement in the United States was so prominent that it inspired the movements in countries around the world. One of the most notable individuals that looked to America for inspiration is Adolf Hitler. After his rise to power in Germany, he began implementing eugenic theory into law. His Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases was modeled after American eugenic theory and legislation. The Nazi government often referred to publications that reported the results of the sterilization policy in California as evidence that wide-reaching sterilization programs were possible. American eugenic supporters were blown away by the success of Hitler’s programs and were jealous that their efforts could not reach the same level. Dr. J. DeJarnette, the superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, told a local newspaper that, “The Germans are beating us at our own game” (qtd. in Markfield 34). The Nazis developed a system for tracking racial characteristics of Germans that resembled the system the ERO had created to track specific traits in Americans. In following the continuum, the Nazis soon progressed from alienation and segregation to sterilization and elimination. It is often assumed that no one knew of the true atrocities committed by the Nazis, however, many Americans were in contact with high-ranking German officials and despite their knowledge of the acts, remained faithful in their belief in the theory of eugenics. In fact, many of the steps in the Nazi final solution were discussed as possibilities for future action by American eugenicists. Programs continued in America in the post-war period, going unopposed legally until the 1970s. In 1974, Relf v. Weinberger was brought before the Supreme Court. This time the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and stated that consent by the individual was required for sterilization to be legal. This initiated not an end to eugenics, but a transformation.

The major distinction between new eugenics and old eugenics is that new eugenics is an individual decision, as opposed to a collective one. No longer is the focus on the improvement of the human species, but instead on the improvement of the quality of life for the mother or child that is undergoing the procedure. In Vitro Fertilization was created in the 1970s and was largely disliked by the majority of society who deemed it unnatural and a form of eugenics. This disproval, however, was overcome due to the demand of infertile individuals who desperately needed it. This reflects the transformation of eugenics because it depicts how the focus is now on the mother’s wants as opposed to society’s. Abortion is another form of modern eugenics. This can be a means of preventing the life of a child with devastating diseases. After a screening to determine if the fetus shows any signs of having a life-compromising disease, the mother can choose to abort the child. This again depicts how the power in modern eugenics is placed in the hands of the woman and not society or the government.

 Along with abortions and In Vitro Fertilization, gene therapy is another example of eugenics today. Gene therapy involves infecting sufficient cells into the body with a gene-carrying virus to correct a faulty gene (Ridley 35). Doctors can recommend that a woman have a particular procedure done to ensure the best life for her and her child, however, the decision is ultimately in the mother’s hands. While many new medical procedures are in use to help prevent the spread of certain diseases, some groups are still using archaic methods of eugenics. For example, Ashkenazi Jews who carry the Tay-Sachs mutation, which is “an inherited metabolic disorder in which certain lipids accumulate in the brain, causing spasticity and death in childhood,” avoid marrying others who also carry the trait (Oxford).  They are checked for the disease through blood testing organized by the Committee for the Prevention of Jewish Genetic Diseases. While the method may be similar to those used in the early twentieth century, the power still lays in the hands of the individual as they are not forced to take any particular measures but instead choose to.

A major proponent of modern Eugenics is genetic engineering. Advancements in technology have allowed for the modification of genes in order to avoid certain traits and diseases. “Inexpensive, efficient gene-editing methods, such ZFN, TALEN, and CRISPR-Cas9, allow molecular biologists to make changes in the DNA sequences of organisms by inducing genetic mutations in their cells” (Cerroni 3). These can be used to manipulate stem cells and stop genetic diseases from becoming active. As technology continues to advance, the ability to manipulate complex traits like appearance and intellect will soon be possibilities. This ability to manipulate genetics brings up an issue over what are acceptable practices.

 Due to the atrocities of the Nazi’s Final Solution, the majority of individuals are extremely wary of any attempts to change or improve the human species and are only convinced that such action is acceptable if it could prevent a life-altering disease. This leads to the necessity of a distinction between what is therapy, meaning the curing of diseases, and what is simply enhancement, meaning to improve desirable characteristics. This distinction, however, is not as clear as one might think. For example, a disability such as dyslexia could be considered both a disease to be cured, but also just a part of the person’s intellect that does not necessarily decrease their quality of life.  Along with the blurry lines that accompany genetic engineering, another issue that arises is the fear of its potential abuse.

Due to this fear, different groups have compiled a list of possible abuses that could result from genetic engineering. The list includes: “promoting a eugenic mentality, providing new means of social control, introducing social stigma, favoring the will of some over the freedom of others, promoting racialization, and eugenic deselection of non-pathological conditions,” (Cerroni 3). This list’s focus on social issues that would arise with the abuse of genetic engineering instead of medical issues shows that genetic engineering and eugenics as a whole is considered a societal matter as opposed to a personal one. Due to this, the government is often involved in matters pertaining to it. In the past, governments abused their power regarding eugenics, which often leads individuals to be wary of government involvement in current issues. However, government involvement is not an abstract idea, even in more modern times. The Supreme Court case, Roe v Wade in 1973, resulted in the government ruling in favor of a modern eugenicist practice of abortion. This brings up the question of how much should the government be involved in matters of modern eugenic practices.

Government intervention involving eugenicist practices in the past had suboptimal outcomes. If one looks to American, they can bear witness to the atrocities that resulted from nearly complete government control of practices like sterilization as thousands of citizens were sterilized because the state deemed them unfit to reproduce. However, no government regulation could potentially be just as harmful. Without regulation, doctors could potentially practice unsafe procedures or could, themselves, fall into similar situations as did doctors in the early part of the twentieth century who believed they had the power to decide who the procedures should be performed on. DJ Galton argues in his article, “Eugenics: some lessons from the past,” that “the major role for legislation may be more to curb the over-enthusiastic activities of companies and businesses that promote and sell such eugenic services to the general public” (Galton 135). This quote demonstrates the idea that government regulation is good in moderation but should not grow to a substantial amount.

Another issue that arises from the concept of modern eugenic programs is morality; is it morally correct to remove someone’s ability to reproduce or to change the life of a child because of their genetic makeup?  History has provided many examples to prove that the answer to the first part of that question is no. However, the second part remains unanswered.  When dealing with alterations that could prevent the fetus from having life-threatening illnesses, most people would argue that it is morally correct. On the other hand, when discussing the potential of changing things such as eye color, intellect, or athletic ability, the question gets more difficult to answer. Some argue that allowing “designer babies” will increase the gap between the rich and the poor because only the wealthy will be able to afford the procedure. This implies, however, that everyone will want to genetically alter their children, which will more than likely not be true. Just as In Vitro Fertilization was used only by those who needed it and not by mass numbers of the public, one can assume a similar pattern to appear with genetic engineering; those with the budget will contemplate the procedure but most individuals will not.

Personally, I agree that there should be some government regulation of modern eugenic practices, just as there is with any medical procedure. The government should merely be there to ensure that the practices are safe and that the medical staff is being completely transparent about what will occur to the individual that is involved. The issue of morality is far more complicated. I believe that if the procedures could save a child’s life or promise a better quality of life overall, then there should be no moral issue associated. The creation of “designer babies” on the other hand, is harder to argue because it is simply the parents wanting their child to appear a certain way; it does not necessarily benefit the child’s quality of life. Because of this, it could be left alone with no effect on the child. Therefore, it is a meaningless manipulation of life for no reason other than aesthetic purposes.

The eugenics movement in America is a largely unknown movement, but it has had a huge impact on the world and continues to impact society. From forced sterilization laws in a multitude of U.S. states to the atrocities committed by the Third Reich, the eugenics of the early twentieth century demonstrate the dangers of abusing the prestige and power of science. These practices have ended but eugenics continues. New advances in science have allowed for new practices, aimed at bettering future generations of the human species, to arise. This new form of eugenics affects not only the scientific realm but also society as a whole, which leads to many critical questions that need to be answered before the practices can be implemented. These questions encompass government involvement and issues of morality, removing the practice from the scientific realm into the world of society and politics.

Works Cited

“BUCK v. BELL, Superintendent of State Colony Epileptics and Feeble Minded,” Legal Information Institute, Accessed April 09, 2021,

Cerroni, Phil. “Genetic Modification and Adverse Societal Effects.” Ethics & Medics, vol. 43, no. 3, Mar. 2018, pp. 2–4. EBSCOhost,

Galton, D. J. “Eugenics: Some Lessons from the Past.” Reproductive BioMedicine Online (Reproductive Healthcare Limited), vol. 10, Mar. 2005, pp. 133–136. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/S1472-6483(10)62222-5.

Galton, Francis. “Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 10, no. 1, 1904, pp. 1–25., doi:10.1086/211280.

Garver, K., and B. Garver. “Eugenics: Past, Present, and Future.” American Journal of Human Genetics, vol. 49, 1991, pp. 1109–1118.

Hodge, Jonathan, and Gregory Radick. The Cambridge Companion to Darwin. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

MacKellar, Calum, and Christopher Bechtel, editors. “The History of Eugenics.” The Ethics of the New Eugenics, 1st ed., Berghahn Books, NEW YORK; OXFORD, 2014, pp. 15–34. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Apr. 2020.

Markfield, Miriam H. “A More Perfect Union: Eugenics in America.” NAELA Journal, vol. 15, Spring 2019, pp. 17–37. EBSCOhost,

Ridley, Matt. “The New Eugenics.” National Review, vol. 52, no. 14, July 2000, pp. 34–36. EBSCOhost,

“The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations.” NPR, NPR, 7 Mar. 2016,,deemed%20to%20be%20%22feebleminded.%22.

“Tay–Sachs Disease: Meaning of Tay–Sachs Disease by Lexico.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries,–sachs_disease.

Whitney, David N. Maladies of Modernity: Scienctism and the Deformation of Political Order. St. Augustine’s Press, 2019.


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