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Lingering Eugenics

  • Posted on June 21, 2011 at 2:17 AM

Often, when I try to inform people about our unsavory history—particularly the eugenics programs practiced here in the United States of America and their similarity to those practiced by Nazi Germany—I’m met with skepticism. I’m told it couldn’t happen here.

But it did.

In this news article, Renee Elder and Tom Breen report on North Carolina’s efforts to “make amends to thousands of people who cannot have children because of eugenics-inspired theories about social improvement.”

The leading paragraph states: “Next week, victims and their relatives will tell their stories to a state task force considering compensation to victims of sterilizations that continued into 1974.”

Not only did I want to post this to show those who might doubt that there is factual evidence—publicly recognized, even if not well known—that proves that the United States did practice eugenics and did inflict harm on real people in their pursuit of some kind of social ideal, I also wanted to highlight the lingering effects of this ideology.

Particularly, there are some choice quotes from Paul Lombardo, a professor at Georgia State University's College of Law, which highlights how these programs are still being justified.

He starts off saying, “The argument was, anybody who generates social costs shouldn’t be allowed to have children.”

Of course, this statement ignores the fact that we all generate social costs. The schools we attend, the roads we use, the courts we use to pursue justice or to change our legal status—these services all come with social costs. The assumption, therefore, is that some of us generate social costs and contribute to paying those costs by paying taxes, whereas others don’t. And this makes the lives of some more valuable than those of others. Those who fail to generate sufficient income for the government to fund the services they use are subject to penalties. One of the penalties the government used to inflict on people was sterilization.

Further along in the article, Lombardo says, “This wasn’t just a bunch of evil people running around. Many of these people really wanted to alleviate suffering.”

I can’t be the only one to see the arrogance in this statement. We “alleviate suffering” by denying the reproductive rights of individuals whom we’ve already devalued? How does this “alleviate suffering?” How does the government assuming the power to control reproduction “alleviate suffering?”

Besides which, evil is not merely a factor of our intentions—as the cliché goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions—but a product of what we do. When we do evil things and justify these things to ourselves by devaluing those we do these things to—well, that’s evil. It just is.

But, of course, Lombardo is not alone in his willingness to continue justifying these abhorrent practices. Mary Kilburn, a retired psychologist who worked for the North Carolina’s Social Services Department from 1969 to 1980, said she and her co-workers believed “we were doing a really helpful thing.” She doesn’t seem to understand that her belief doesn’t make it so. According to this article, “She said it has been a shock to see their work vilified because so many families welcomed the procedure at the time.”

Families are often convinced by doctors they trust to do things they shouldn’t. We can’t all be experts on everything that could be medically significant in our lives. We have to rely on those who are experts for sound advice. But sometimes those people are wrong. Sometimes the doctors are wrong, sometimes the parents are wrong, and sometimes the state is wrong.

“I looked at it not as something being done to them, but something being done for them,” Kilburn said.

And that’s how we justify the evil we do. We turn people into “them,” and the “us” knows what’s good for “them,” so we do it to “them” whether they want it or not. This, unfortunately, has not changed.