Professor revisits eugenic science


Only 50 years ago, the United States upheld policies that allowed eugenic sterilization, a process where people are forced to undergo surgery that shuts down the function of reproductive organs.

Dr. Johanna Schoen, a professor in the Department of History, addressed these policies yesterday in the Life Sciences Building on Busch campus.

The lecture was held in honor of Darwin Day, which is celebrated on the birthday of esteemed scientist Charles Darwin, said David Axelrod, a professor in the Department of Genetics.

Axelrod said Schoen, a specialist in genetics and women’s abortion rights, presented on Darwin Day because abortion, birth control and woman’s rights are pressing issues today.

Schoen began the lecture with a case where a social worker forced a young girl in the 1920s to be sterilized, deeming her promiscuous and feeble-minded. In reality, she was raped and threatened not to testify, Schoen said.

“Eugenic science became popular in the 20th century as people became obsessed with the idea of forming the perfect pedigree,” Schoen said. “There would be ‘fitter family’ contests to see who had the best pedigree, and members of the family who had undesirable offspring were sterilized.”

Sterilization was justified if the person, usually a woman, was deemed mentally diseased, epileptic, or feeble-minded, she said. Social workers defined a feeble-minded person as someone with an IQ less than 70, born illegitimately or of alcoholic parents or had unsatisfactory social, medical or eugenic family history.

“They believed that eugenic science would solve the social problems … but the only way to recognize somebody as feeble-minded was to recognize the social symptoms, such as poverty, promiscuity, alcoholism and illegitimacy,” Schoen said.

The trend toward eugenic sterilization started in North Carolina and spread to 30 other states, she said. The state legislatures believed they were acting for the good of the general public by keeping the feeble-minded from reproducing and creating more detriments to society.

In most cases, candidates for sterilization were institutionalized, she said. Once in the mental institution, a series of tests would be run to verify the mental, moral and physical condition of the patient.

In the case of North Carolina, social workers could petition for the sterilization of people who were not institutionalized, Schoen said. That means an arbitrary person with no medical experience could determine whether or not a person had the right to have children.

“Between 1909 and 1953, there were 20,000 eugenic sterilizations in North Carolina alone. Between 1929 and 1975, there were 63,000 sterilizations nationwide,” she said.

The genetics specialist went on to explain the people targeted were mostly white women until the civil rights movement began, when sterilization was used against African-American women, she said.

At that point, the public began to equate the abuse of eugenic sterilization to Hitler’s plan to create the perfect race, Sch  oen said.

“People saw no difference between their state legislature and the Nazi regime. That is when the laws began to crumble, “ Schoen said.

Kathleen McDonald, administrative assistant in the Department of Genetics, highlighted the importance of the lecture.

“We just wanted to show that we still value Darwin’s beliefs even though it has been so long,” she said. “This lecture in particular is one that brings together all our departments.”

Julie Maguire, a graduate student in the Division of Life Sciences, said she was glad this topic was covered because she had no idea this was an issue in American history.

“Now, in this day and age, we can learn from lessons from the past in allowing freedoms of choice to not be restricted to access to healthcare and service,” she said. “It especially works toward a woman’s freedom to choose and how nobody should be forced to do anything they don’t want to do.”

While the eugenic sterilization is no longer nationally legal, the fact that it was legal for so long shocked many attendees of the seminar.

“Honestly this whole situation is good enough to be a play … I’m still looking for a theater to pick it up,” Schoen said.


By Ijeoma Unachukwu

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