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Breeding only the best

American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism Nancy Ordover, University of Minnesota Press: 240 pp., $18.95 paper War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, Edwin Black, Four Walls Eight Windows: 550 pp., $27

September 07, 2003|Tony Platt | Tony Platt, emeritus professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento, is researching the history of eugenics.

How is it that the once obscure history of eugenics -- the pseudoscientific belief in the biological origins of social success and failure -- has become a hot topic for academics, reporters and investigative journalists? Any story that involves a combustible mix of reproduction, race and class is bound to spark attention, but there's more going on here than intellectual prurience.

First, there's the specter of reparations looming over recent grass-roots efforts to wring public apologies from various state governments for their role in compelling patients and the "socially unfit" to undergo forced sterilization during the first half of the 20th century. "Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics," noted Gov. Gray Davis in March, acknowledging that the victimization of some 20,000 people in state hospitals marked "a sad and regrettable chapter" in California's history. In the 1920s, the Golden State's leading civic reformers -- including Sacramento banker Charles M. Goethe, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan and real estate tycoon Ezra S. Gosney -- lobbied nationwide for the eugenics agenda. And in the 1930s, as board members of Pasadena's Human Betterment Foundation, they enjoyed a mutually appreciative relationship with the advocates of "race hygiene" in Nazi Germany.

Then there are the cautionary lessons the past offers about the unregulated use of genetic engineering and reproductive technology. Such contemporary issues as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, gene therapy and reproductive and research cloning promise the same kind of moral and political quagmires as sterilization, birth control and immigrant screening did in the United States between the world wars. Similarly, our current interest in the biological roots of cognitive ability echoes early 20th century debates about IQ tests.

Public concern today is directed not only at the reliability of research and the dangers posed by scientists going into the business of social engineering but also at how market forces drive the new genetics. As biotech companies take the initiative in research and development, who will get to decide, for example, whether prospective parents can customize their babies or whose identities should be maintained in DNA databanks?

In the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s, enterprising academics and professionals, backed by government support and corporate philanthropy (W. Averell Harriman, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller Jr.), led the campaign for "human betterment" through applied biology. Their expertise determined, for example, which unmarried, sexually active women and "feebleminded" adolescents should be sterilized. But, as demonstrated in these two very different books -- Nancy Ordover's theoretical monograph "American Eugenics" and Edwin Black's "War Against the Weak," a muckraking history -- eugenics was much more than a short-lived, crackpot crusade.

Ten years ago the historical literature on eugenics was sparse, with the foundational studies of Mark Haller's "Eugenics" (1963) and Daniel Kevles' "In the Name of Eugenics" (1985) providing our basic knowledge of its rise and fall. More recently, feminist historians -- including Laura Briggs, Angela Davis, Linda Gordon, Wendy Kline, Regina Kunzel and Alexandra Minna Stern -- have deepened our understanding about the scope and cultural significance of eugenics as a site of struggle over the politics of reproduction and race. As a contribution to this genre, "American Eugenics" explores governmental attempts to use eugenics to impose "technological fixes" on the underclass "in lieu of meaningful correctives to economic inequity."

Ordover, who is a Rockefeller fellow in the Program for the Study of Sexuality, Gender, Health and Human Rights at Columbia University, is less interested in eugenics as public policy or science than in its "extremely nimble ideology." In this compact, far-ranging cultural critique, she invites us to make connections between anti-immigrant panics, sterilization campaigns and the search for the genetic roots of sexual desire. Eugenics, she argues, is like a "scavenger" that collects and exploits anxieties about national identity, consigning the politically disenfranchised to the garbage dump. It uses the value-free language of "science" and "public health" to mask its political agenda: "[W]herever biologism and public policy have intersected, they have extracted a terrible price from the poor, physically and politically." Ordover's conclusion is certainly true for the hundreds of thousands of mostly poor women who, before World War II, were required to acquiesce to sterilization to gain release from mental hospitals, homes for the feebleminded and other such institutions, and who in the 1950s and '60s were tricked or coerced by social and public health workers into sterilization or untested birth control regimens as a condition for receiving public assistance.

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