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Historian Traces U.S. Eugenics Movement

Cloning, genetic manipulation, and designer babies may sound like progressive developments at the forefront of modern medicine, but to historian Wendy Kline they can be counted among the latest terms in a century-long movement to "build a better race" in the United States.

Date: 4/16/2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Cloning, genetic manipulation, and designer babies may sound like progressive developments at the forefront of modern medicine, but to historian Wendy Kline they can be counted among the latest terms in a century-long movement to "build a better race" in the United States.

"The eugenic notion of 'building a better race' was at one time seen as progressive and enlightened; now we know it was a dangerous example of state control over women's bodies," says Kline, whose recent book, Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom was published by the University of California Press ($35).

"We must remember past examples of fertility regulation as we debate the impact of 'progressive' new technologies, such as cloning and genetic screening," she cautions. "The repercussions of genetic manipulation of any kind, in the name of science, can be measured by America's fascination with and involvement in the eugenics movement in its not-too-distant past."

Kline, assistant professor of history in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, became interested in eugenics history as an undergraduate student at Smith College. She stumbled upon a pamphlet "that proved to be a gem," she says. "It was a document that generated more questions than answers in my mind, always a sign that I've sniffed up the right trail." The document was a report called the Survey of Sonoma State Home Waiting List, conducted by the State Board of Charities and Corrections of the State of California in 1925. A hand-drawn pie chart covered the first page, riveting her attention. It mapped out the "desperate needs" of the 1,023 applicants waiting to get into the Sonoma State Home for the Feebleminded. Due to overcrowding, they were denied an immediate placement. Among the "feebleminded" were 262 people who "required" sterilization so that they could never reproduce, the researcher noticed.

For Kline, this conjured up images of Nazi Germany, rather than 1920s America. Later she learned that 30 states had eugenic sterilization laws in the United States -- sterilizing more than 60,000 men and women deemed to be "unfit" or unworthy of parenthood.

She read the 16-page pamphlet from front to back and was struck by its focus on female sexuality as a primary concern. "Yet surprisingly, no historian had focused on the role of women or sexuality in the eugenics movement," she says. Thus, her research for her first book began.

Kline's book traces eugenics from its emergence as a movement focused on preventing procreation of the unfit -- what she calls "negative eugenics" -- to its evolution into "positive genetics" -- a movement centered on promoting procreation of the fit. She argues that the 1950s "Baby Boom" had its roots in the eugenics movement of the 1920s and '30s, and concerns about the decline of the white middle-class birth rate. She also sees a link between the old eugenics movement and today's "family" values debate.

Early in the 20th century, influential figures such as Teddy Roosevelt first spoke of "race suicide," referring to the drop in the white middle-class birthrate. It had dropped from from seven to just over three children over the course of the previous century, says Kline.

Roosevelt accused women of "good stock," who chose college and career over marriage and motherhood, of being "race criminals." This widespread concern over "race suicide" led to a countrywide crusade to strengthen the family and civilization by regulating fertility, better known as eugenics.

Photo By: Dottie Stover

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