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The Features Of Eugenics Movement

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In the 20th century, there was a period of murder and brutality that was brought on by the eugenics movement. This cruelty mainly occurred in Nazi controlled Germany during World War II, but the eugenics movement was quite strong in the United States of America as well. Eugenics is the controlled sexual or asexual reproduction of people to encourage people with good genes to reproduce while forcing people with bad genes to not reproduce. This idea, first developed by Sir Francis Galton, became deeply engrained in American society during the 1930s. During this time period, the eugenics movement was seen to be part of wide spreading national reform. It was seen as a progressive and evolutionary idea, but I would argue that it was a low point in American culture.

Charles Benedict Davenport was perhaps America’s most well-known eugenist and biologist. He was from Connecticut and attended Harvard University. He earned a Ph.D. in biology. The reason that this is so crucial is to show that Davenport was extremely well educated. Davenport was especially interested in the biometrics system that was proposed by Sir Francis Galton. This system classified statistical data from a parent’s physical traits in order to determine whether or not the child will inherit their characteristics (Witowski/Galton). After this idea was debunked by Gregor Mendel’s laws of hereditary, Davenport began to focus on genes and inheritance. He believed that he could combine the two ideologies to improve lives.

Davenport funded and became the director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in Long Island and he founded the Eugenics Record Office. The CSHL went on to become a nonprofit institution that had many research programs, mainly focusing on cancer. The Eugenics Record Office served mainly to gather information on Americans, this information would be used for eugenic and hereditary research. It was used to determine ancestries and collected information on the pedigrees of families. After gathering much information, they concluded that the people who were most “unfit” came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and from certain races or ethnicities. The ERO was also known for spreading propaganda advocating for the eugenics movement (Witowski).

In the USA, the eugenics movement was pretty wildly accepted in the 1900s. There were many universities that offered classes on eugenics and they further spread the idea that certain people were less fit and less able than others based on a set of arbitrary characteristics. Davenport embraced the eugenics movement with open arms and his espousal led to many new changes.

Davenport claimed that it was his duty as a eugenicist to clean up his country of people who were undesirable. In 1920 he proposed a plan to slow down immigration into the country to the United States government. He proposed that there needed to be stricter tests to make sure no disabled or handicapped people entered the United States. The Immigration Restriction League was founded in 1894, and while it was not directly affiliated with Davenport, they also believed that inferior races should be banned from entering America. Davenport and the League argued for literacy tests and eventually got a literacy test bill passed by Congress in 1917 (Witowski). After these and other anti-immigration acts were passed, eugenicists had moved into the role as advisers on the topic of who was “inferior” and who was “fit.”

The work of eugenicists like Davenport led to the passing of sterilization laws in the US. First passed in Indiana in 1907, these sterilization laws were upheld by the United States Supreme Court and served as an inspiration/template to other countries. Canada, Sweden and Germany all implemented sterilization legislation by 1935. Most sterilization in the United States was done on women (sixty one percent). The reasoning behind this was that, at the time, women were blamed for their children having disabilities or defects of any kind. For this reason, eugenicists attacked and targeted women to lower their birth rates and to lower the chances of having “defective” people in their society (Witowski).

Because Davenport and his contemporaries were worried about America’s openness to large scale gas chambers, they euthanized people that they deemed to be defective in more discreet ways. For example, hospitals in Illinois would feed their patients tuberculosis infected milk. Their reasoning was that anyone who was genetically sound would be able to resist the effects of the tuberculosis and would be completely fine. Another method that was proposed during this time was the idea of “lethal neglect.”

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Now that we know what a movement Davenport helped lead, we must ask whether the eugenics movement was ethical. In my opinion, the eugenics movement was not at all ethical. The people who were affected by this movement usually were dragged into it without having a choice. I would even argue that the eugenics movement was not even really a scientific movement. The movement just gathered information and statistical data on what characteristics already existed in humans and they decided to lower the chances of getting certain characteristics. This is not a “biology” as they loved to claim, but I think it was just statistics. They wanted to create healthier and better societies for the future, but instead of coming up with a way to help others, they came up with a way to murder or sterilize people who were disabled, and people that they claimed had the POTENTIAL to produce disabled people.

I have people related to me with ADHD. Would that mean that I should be sterilized? All because there is a miniscule chance that it may be passed on to my children?

I think the issue with Davenport is that he believes that people can be perfect. Even if you reduce the chances of someone’s children getting a disability or disease, it doesn’t reduce that percentage to 0.0%. And who gets to decide what traits are perceived as perfect or the best traits? Would black eugenicists say that the perfect babies are black? Would white eugenicists say that the perfect babies are white? Different have different ideas on what’s perfect and what isn’t, and this would lead to more problems for the eugenicists. And what if some parents decide that they want children to be tall and thin while other parents want their children to be thick and muscular? It shouldn’t just be left to just one person to decide all of these important factors. In fact, it can’t even be left to our governments or other third parties because they might have their own nefarious schemes going on in the background. Parents may be coerced into making decisions not only by these companies, but they may be coerced by their families or by society itself.

One of the issues with the eugenics movement is the issue of creating a master or ruling class. As we saw in Gattaca, the genetically engineered were perfect and were far superior to people born of normal birth. This is somewhat the reverse of what the eugenics movement is pushing for. Genetic engineering attempts to increase the number of people with the preferred traits while the eugenics movement attempts to lower the number of people with genes that negatively affect them. Even among Gattaca’s ruling elite, there were some disparities within their skills. However, that difference was nothing compared to the gap between the genetically engineered and the non-genetically engineered. The point is that even if we go the genetically modification route instead of the eugenics route, we end up in the same situation. We create a divide among ourselves, a biological divide, and this divide may prove to be irreparable. For this reason, it was imperative to put a damper on the eugenics movement.

In Davenport’s mind, he was being ethical. For him, humanity is consistently facing new threats and dangers. From global warming to war, there are many threats that people face. He believed that eugenics could help us conserve food by making us more efficient by editing our metabolisms. He thought that the more developed we made ourselves, the more we would be able to reach new heights. If humans on average could all run faster, lift more weights and be generally healthier and smarter, it would allow us to reach new heights as a race. His end goal was a good one. He was not in the game for his own personal gain, rather he wanted to improve lives overall. However, he felt that the ends justified the means. For him and most eugenists, it was okay to sacrifice a few generations of disabled or disadvantaged people in order to create many new generations of fully healthy people. For him, he was making a necessary sacrifice.

However, it’s unethical to force people to reproduce with certain people, or to tell certain people that they cannot reproduce at all. If he had suggested less drastic measures to slowly build us up to the end, the eugenics movement may have had a different light cast upon it by history. My suggestion would be that there should be no one to tell you who you can or cannot have children with. What if we created a dating app like Tinder, but would have your health information that you want people to know on it? For example, if you have a disease like AIDS, you would tell that to potential partners and they would have to be comfortable with that. On the other hand, you could put all of the health benefits that you have. For example, a genius with an extremely high IQ could put that on their profile as well. In addition, you would disclose some of the information on your family’s traits and history of diseases or genetics as well. This would allow people to know around what chance there is of having healthy babies. In my opinion, while there would be privacy concerns, this would help solve the eugenics issue while creating the least number of other problems.

We all know about the survival of the fittest. The eugenicists took this idea to the next level and attempted to play God by deciding who should live and who should die. It could be argued that Davenport and his peers violated basic human rights in their attempts to create a new master race. It’s funny that you associate creating a master race to the Nazis and Hitler, but when you find out that the eugenics movement was actually quite popular in the US, you become quite surprised. You would think that the US would be much more ethical than Germany during World War II, but then you find out that the Supreme Court upheld laws that prevented people from having kids for the rest of their lives, which could’ve effectively ended entire family trees. What is also strange is that you would think that people who are educated would have the correct morals on what is right and what is wrong, but it was unfortunately not the case for Charles Davenport.

Works Cited

  2. Witkowski, J. A. Davenport's Dream: 21st Century Reflections on Heredity and Eugenics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2008.
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The Features Of Eugenics Movement. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
“The Features Of Eugenics Movement.” Edubirdie, 18 Feb. 2022,
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