Schansberg: Eugenics at Indiana University

August 10, 2016

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

As we observe Indiana’s bicentennial, here’s something from our history that we can’t celebrate: In 1907, Indiana became the first state in America to pass a eugenics law.

Eugenics is the study of the hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled, selective breeding. The word derives from its Latin components — eu meaning “well” or “good” and genics meaning “born” or “birth.” Eugenics, then, seeks the products of “good birth” or being “well born” (better human beings or a better human race) through selective breeding.

From there, two categories emerge: Positive eugenics is the study of “good” outcomes achieved through breeding; negative eugenics is the study of “bad” outcomes, when undesirable characteristics are lessened or eliminated through selective breeding.

Beyond mere study, eugenics typically leads to a set of recommended practices. Beyond mere science, eugenics has always been connected to various worldviews and related to other theories. And beyond what we knew about science a century ago, we now have a greater understanding of the extent to which genetics affect such outcomes.

In sum, eugenics is a pseudo-science loaded with philosophical and ethical baggage. The History Sir Francis Galton was responsible for first describing eugenics (in 1865) and then coining the term (in 1883). Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, suggested the study of eugenics to pursue a better human race by applying the basic principles of agricultural breeding to humans. In time, eugenics became synonymous with “self-directed human evolution” through the conscious choice of who should (and should not) have children.

In particular, eugenicists have often been concerned about “inferior” people (e.g., the poor, those with darker skin) having more children than “superior” people (e.g., middle-upper income classes, those with lighter skin). Galton built upon Darwin’s ideas by asserting that the mechanisms of natural selection had been thwarted by human civilization. For example, charity and welfare allowed the poor to reproduce more often. So, should one help the poor or was that only “making things worse”? In Galton’s view, since many human societies tried to protect the weak, they were acting to limit the natural selection that would result in the extinction of the weakest individuals — and thus the strengthening of the human race.

Galton and other eugenicists recommended policy changes in order to improve society, to save it from mediocrity, reversion or even catastrophe. As such, eugenics differed from its cousin, “Social Darwinism.” While both emphasized hereditary influences on intelligence, Social Darwinists argued that society itself would naturally deal with the problem. (It should be noted that the proponents of these views never embraced this label.) Interestingly, the laissez-faire attitudes of Social Darwinists extended from political economy to natural selection while the statist presumptions of eugenicists inclined them to pursue more aggressive methods. Galton’s ideas picked up steam as scientists and physicians lent their credibility and support to his notions.

One particularly amazing example: In a medical journal in 1902, Dr. Harry Sharp described the illegal vasectomies he gave inmates in a Jeffersonville, Indiana, reformatory. He argued that it was good for the inmates as well as achieving a greater social good. (Sharp sterilized as many as 456 men over an eight-year period.) Sharp’s efforts were well-received and increasingly supported by doctors, agricultural breeders, sociologists and public health officials.

One of the nation’s most prominent eugenicists was David Starr Jordan, a past president of Indiana University. Given the intellectual coherence of eugenics with the ideas of that time, plus powerful proponents like Jordan and the extensive lobbying of Sharp, the Indiana Legislature passed its eugenics law on March 9, 1907. It promised to prevent the “procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.”

Related: “Sadly, Indiana Pioneered Eugenics” by Andrea Neal, Indiana at 200.

The law was repealed in 1921 but reinstated in 1928 — after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s similar law in 1927 (Buck v. Bell). In that case, Carrie Buck was a 17-year old girl who was forcibly sterilized at the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded in Lynchburg because she had been pregnant and her mother had been mentally ill. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the decision and penned this now-stunning quote:

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Eventually, 30 states adopted sterilization laws by the early 1930s. The number of involuntary sterilizations peaked in the 1930s and slowed to a trickle by the 1960s, the last being performed in 1981. In all, more than 60,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in the United States (more than half in California).

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast. This is excerpted from an essay to appear in the quarterly journal of the foundation.


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