ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

That Damn Eugenics Research!

on August 7, 2015

Crap. Eugenics is getting inside my head.

So, I’ve been reading for the Polish Boy Scouts project this week, and it’s still exhausting and hard reading. In particular, I’m dipping into “War Against the Weak” with inroads into “Bloodlands.” And then, when I need a little light relief, I’m looking at a book of propaganda posters I just bought. So, yeah, I’m probably in a really horrible mood, which is why I’ve been hanging out in my office this week.

So, the eugenics book concentrates on America, but Edwin Black is the son of Polish holocaust survivors. His argument is that this movement born in America grew to horrible adolescence in Nazi Germany (poetic, huh?). And guess what was eventually at the root of eugenics? Why, American Nativism!

(For those of you who know me in real life, Nativism is sort of “my” topic. If I ever do my Ph.D. in history, it will be on American Nativism.)

So then, there was a weird juxtaposition of real life and writing life when my Facebook feed became completely clogged with posts both for and against Planned Parenthood. In particular, one pseudo-friend posted about how Margaret Sanger thought black people should be eradicated, so I jumped ahead in War Against the Weak to read about her thoughts. She’s often portrayed as an anti-Semite or a racist when in fact she was neither. She became a birth control activist after seeing too many women die as the result of repeated pregnancies, miscarriages, and self-induced abortions. She wanted to prevent those problems by preventing unwanted pregnancy. She wanted women to be in full control of their own bodies.

She was also tainted by eugenics, as were an awful lot of social reformers. She believed in “negative eugenics,” meaning that she thought the unfit should be sterilized. But she also thought the government shouldn’t interfere in family planning; people should be educated on how to prevent unwanted pregnancy and would then be responsible enough to make their own decisions.

Okay, I admit freely that this is a gross oversimplification of her views. She wouldn’t endorse killing people who were retarded or blind or so on, so the eugenics people weren’t as supportive of birth control as she might have wished. And she thought everyone should limit the size of their families, not just poor people and immigrants.

So, here’s the dilemma: is Planned Parenthood tainted by eugenics too? The words we use are that people who can’t afford to take care of children shouldn’t have them. Or that people who are temperamentally unsuited shouldn’t either. Or even that people shouldn’t have more than a certain number of children. In my own awkward way, I guess I wonder if we’re still saying that some people are a “pauper” class (see: the Jukes) and should have birth control so they don’t have more kids. Do we really mean that some people shouldn’t have kids because they are too poor?

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