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  • Chrystal Mallouras & Gwendolyn Sze

Eugenics: is it a Thing of America’s Past?

Carrie Buck and her mother, Emma Buck, circa 1924  Poster Advocating Sterilization in 1920’s

In the twenty-first century, the human genome was completely sequenced. But what does this mean? It means that geneticists were finally able to fully understand what long DNA sequences encoded for, and their impacts on the human race. The genome is entirely filled with variations for templates of proteins in the body but it is not entirely determined what traits it will be expressed in individuals. Of course, this is a project that has been in the making for many decades. However, before the completion of the human genome, humanity was left guessing as to what the cause of so many different disorders were. And with no other information, in the early twentieth century, society took matters into their own hands and began a new movement: the eugenics movement. 

One hundred years ago, the Eugenical Sterilization Act was passed in the United States. Just ninety-seven years ago, Carrie Buck was forcefully sterilized after  being deemed “feebleminded” during her Supreme Court case Buck Vs. Bell.“Feeblemindedness” is a term that emerged in the early nineteenth and twentieth centuries used to describe individuals that were exhibiting a lack of productivity or other behaviors that were considered “backwards.” It was a “medical” term that was often used to justify grounds for forced sterilization during the eugenics movement in the 1900’s. 

The story of Buck Vs. Bell is tragic. Carrie Buck had a difficult early life. She grew up with a foster family and was reportedly a victim of rape by the son of her adoptive family. Authorities knew that Carrie however was considered immoral and delinquent because of the pregnancy. Due to an IQ test she was feebleminded and “poor white trash.” It was ruled for her to be sterilized in order to prevent her passing the feeblemindedness. Carrie's mother was considered feeble minded and one look at Carrie's eight month old daughter proved her to be the same. Feeblemindedness was confirmed as hereditary in Bucks bloodline and sterilization was necessary. The result of the case was 8 to 1 to uphold Virginia's eugenical sterilization law. Progressives believed that reproductive rights of Carrie Buck should be regulated in order to protect the larger society. It is deemed the freedom of an individual is no longer a privilege when the society's welfare is concerned. 

It is horrific to think about the ways in which female reproductive rights were disregarded and deemed under control of the government. Mental disabilities that have no correlation with genes were the primary cause for sterilization. Eugenics was also connected to Hitler and Nazism, as the driving factor behind the Nazi death camps. Both sides of eugenics were centered around manipulating human heredity, breeding to produce a superior race, one without biologically inferior people  (of a certain race or of inferior intelligence.)

But is eugenics truly over? Not necessarily, with the introduction of genetic modification technology like CRISPR, the uber-affluent are taking the initiative to genetically modify their future children, and creating “designer babies” with every desirable trait they want their kids to have. While it’s not sterilization, it’s still eliminating undesirable traits and replacing them with new ones. Is there a chance that we may see a new wave of eugenics in our future?

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