Dangerous Science: The Abuse of Human Rights Through Eugenics

Many of us fully believe and trust in science, after all science has been responsible for discovering life saving medicines and eradicating diseases. It is tested and proven by highly educated individuals who have dedicated their lives to improving the quality of the lives of all people. Scientists have made incredible discoveries for centuries that have lead to longer healthier lives. However, scientists have not always used the study of science to benefit society. Should science always be blindly and completely trusted to have good intentions? Can scientists and leading educated minds use “data” to convince people to hate and fear others? When does science become dangerous? When can it become a tool for discrimination and violate human rights? Although people have used science for incredible advances, it can be taken advantage of and used to harm certain groups as in the case of eugenics.

Sir Frances Galton coined the term “eugenics” in the late 1800s. Galton created this “science” as a means to improve human society. He and other leading scientists believed that by continuing the breeding of positive human qualities and eliminating poor qualities, people could eventually rid humanity of unwanted qualities and consequently perfect human kind. Scientists interpreted both positive and negative eugenics. Positive was based on the idea of encouraging the continuation of strong human genes, while negative aimed to actively rid humans of “less desirable” qualities. The United States, along with several other countries, took the negative eugenics route.[1] Those in America who espoused negative eugenics worked to bring this so-called improvement of society to the next level by pushing for the sterilization of all of those individuals who did not have the perceived positive qualities.

The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, a 1914 academic journal on criminal law and eugenics written by Giulio Q. Battaglini, noted that those who should be sterilized in order to improve human kind were the “…feebleminded, insane, criminalistics, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent.” Battaglini went on to say that “orphans, ne’er-do-wells, tramps, the homeless, and paupers”[2] should also be a part of the list. Many academics supported Battaglini’s ideas and the first statewide law to enact sterilization was Indiana in 1907, and was closely followed by Connecticut. The Indiana law “mandate[ed] compulsory sterilization of ‘degenerates.’”[3] In less than two decades the laws had gained widespread support throughout the United States. Many of the most vocal supporters of these atrocious acts were highly educated scientists and professors. In her article The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction Chloe S. Burke notes that eugenic authorities argued that by sterilizing individuals with less desirable traits and “…getting rid of those more likely to be involved in crime, poverty, and disability,”[4] the science world would be essentially saving future tax payer dollars which would have gone toward housing and caring for these people.

The court case of Skinner v. Oklahoma eventually did find the sterilization of criminals unconstitutional in 1942. However sterilization of other victims, most notably the mentally ill, was widespread in the United States until the mid-1970s.[5] At one point, there were more than thirty states that allowed sterilization in the first half of the twentieth century.[6] The idea that this kind of horrifyingly dehumanizing act was ever legal in America is appalling, but what is even worse is that it is a part of our very recent past. The American public is infatuated with scientific discovery. Every year people go to elite colleges and universities to become scientists, and every year it seems that these intelligent people make groundbreaking discoveries. But, are we too quick to trust everything we are told simply because it is “scientific” or has “supporting data”? It is difficult to believe that people actually espoused a human assisted sort of Darwinism, and that more people did not stand up and demand that this stop sooner. Although eugenics is no longer an active part of our lives, the ablism, racism, classism, and other isms promoted by eugenics, are still a part of the American psyche today. I do not believe that most people would ever vocally claim that they believe in or support eugenics. However, the residual effects of eugenics are still with us today. It leads me to wonder, and fear, if we could ever be swept away in mass hysteria and fear of another “scientific” discovery, or have we moved forward as a society? Would we recognize the fundamental anti-human sentiment and abuse of basic human rights within potentially troubling “scientifically proven” data if it were published today?

[1] Elof Carlson, “Scientific Origins of Eugenics” in The Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/ Copyright 2015 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Accessed March 18, 2015.

[2] Giulio Q. Battaglini, “Eugenics and the Criminal Law” in Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 5 Issue 1. http://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1275&context=jclc Copyright 1914 Northwestern School of Law Scholarly Commons. Accessed March 18, 2015.

[3] Elof Carlson “Scientific Origins of Eugenics” in The Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/ Copyright 2015 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Accessed March 18, 2015.

[4] Chloe S. Burke, “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction” in The Public Historian 29, No. 3. Copyright 2003.

[5] Paul Lombardo, “Eugenic Sterilization Laws” in The Archive on the American Eugenics Movement. http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/ Copyright 2015 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Accessed March 18, 2015.

[6] Chloe S. Burke, “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction” in The Public Historian 29, No. 3. Copyright 2003.

12 thoughts on “Dangerous Science: The Abuse of Human Rights Through Eugenics

  1. Caitlin, I definitely find resonance in your questioning of whether a eugenic-type mindset could be perpetuated by scientific studies today. I think that people do blindly alter their thinking or their lifestyles simply because of “scientific data.” Also, I am concerned that science is moving towards creating “perfect” people instead of allowing nature to take its course. I understand that this is a potentially contentious issue, but it illustrates a larger point about how scientific discovery can influence decision making without adequate time to really test potential hazards and consider human impact.

  2. I think you got to the heart of the matter with “However, scientists have not always used the study of science to benefit society.” Science itself isn’t good or bad; it is simply a tool that can be used for different purposes. Seeking to understand the world around us is an admirable pursuit, but we have to be careful what we do with the knowledge gained, as the history of eugenics aptly illustrates. Unfortunately, I think you’re right when you point out in today’s world, people tend to blindly trust science to have their best interests at heart. As citizens of the world, we each have a duty to critically evaluate scientific advances and not let them be used as tools of oppression.

    1. Emily I think you bring up a good point here; science is a tool. It is not intended to decide what is good or bad, it is designed to provide solutions to what could be considered problems. This is a little scary because it gives scientists free-range to research what they want. However, many scientific advancements are accidents. I personally want to encourage creativity within science. I think the problem is that society has to step in when they cross moral lines, and unfortunately society does not always agree, as Carly discusses below. I do think we are changing as a society and have stronger moral compasses, but as Caitlin said, eugenics was a very real part of our country well into the 1970s. There are still real concerns that we may blindly follow where science leads.

      1. Everyone makes a good point about how we blindly follow science. How can we as museum professional promote scientific literacy? Does every museum need to enable this kind of thinking?
        Despite the answer to my questions, we need to consider the balancing act. Restrict the science field and they could lose innovation. Don’t restrict science who knows what happens.

        We still see this idea of perfect person with prenatal screening and autism. Only this time, it is in the hand of the parents.

    2. Science and other studies conducted by people reflect the social and cultural attitudes of the larger society. Darwinsim and natural selection, eugenics, and sterilization ideas are connected to issues of racial, social, and economic discrimination at this time. The idea of not allowing people who are considered outcasts or not fit in society to reproduce highlights the use and development of scientific studies to reinforce our prejudices and to justify these ideas.

  3. SHOOT, I should’ve commented what I wrote on Emily’s blog on yours instead!

    I think that science as a profession has progressed immeasurably since the eugenists dominated the scientific discourse and scientists must now go through a vigorous peer-review process before having their papers published. That being said, there are “scientists” who, like the eugenists, do not practice good science. An example that comes to my mind is a scientist, Andrew Wakefield, who is often cited in the anti-vaccine movement due to his fraudulent research on how vaccines cause autism. Even though his paper has been discredited by the scientific field, people still cite this article and perpetuate the myth that vaccines cause autism. Although obviously this example is different than eugenics, I think these examples are united in the fact that dubious science is used to “prove points” about some aspect of society. As museum professionals, we have a platform to promote peer-reviewed, well-researched and tested science and discredit that which is harmful to society.

    1. Carly, this is such a good example, and one that Carlyn always brings up! People inherently trust science and scientists because they think science is a set of true facts, but in reality science can be interpreted in different ways for different purposes.

  4. When considering whether or not we as a society could get swept up in a mass hysteria over a scientific invention, I’m torn. Society and museums have begun to listen to and include the voices of those who have previously been silenced: those with disabilities, LGBT, and minorities just to name a few. But that doesn’t stop us from considering gene alterations before birth or tracking every bit of our child’s development to make sure they are “normal”. Is society embracing a “it may be fine for you, but it won’t be for me” attitude?

  5. It is such a slippery slope to, as many of said here, blindly follow science. On the one hand, exciting discoveries that help humanity seem to be happening every hour. On the other, history has shown us that in the wrong hands, science especially if mixed with unchecked political power is catasrophic.

    What really boils my blood is that the United States practiced sterilization into the 1970’s. That feels like a a long time ago, but it is also the decade my brother was born in. Now I don’t think that he has particularl plans of parenthood, but the fact that someone who is now such a valued and beloved member of our community at home was just a few years removed from a time where he could have this basic right taken away by the state….I’m just glad that 21st century America is a little bit more enlightened.

    1. This is an excellent point. Human rights abuses aren’t just in the past; they are happening every day, and we all have a duty to be aware of what is going on and not just assume it’s in the past. The article you linked to is absolutely horrifying, and I hadn’t heard about it before. Thank you for posting it.

  6. I agree with many of the comments above. I too feel like scientific inquiry and creativity should be encouraged, but it definitely can be used as an instrument of oppression and discrimination. However, I do think distrust of scientific evidence (as well as “bad” science) is also used to justify terrible things as well. Overall, the readings this week on eugenics brought home for me just how difficult it can be to fully separate science and technology from the cultural and historical context they live in. At the end of the day, science is interpreted by humans and used as a lens that informs human behavior.

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