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Apologizing for Eugenics: A Good Idea

John G. West

In recent years, a number of states have apologized for their role in promoting the Social Darwinist crusade known as “eugenics” through forced sterilization laws. In “It’s never too late to say you’re sorry,” writer Knute Berger of the internet newspaper Crosscut is calling on Washington state to apologize for its forced sterilization law, noting that Washington was the second state to adopt such a law. He’s right. Washington state—and other states—should apologize for their role in promoting eugenics. This is a sad and disturbing chapter in American history, and citizens need to know about it (although the new Kansas State Board of Education seems to think otherwise).

Berger is also right that it is far too easy for us today to dismiss the eugenics experience as fringe science promoted by a few crackpots. In fact, eugenics was the consensus view of the scientific community for many years during the early part of the twentieth century:

We’re generally horrified by that idea now — especially following the full application of eugenics practices by the Nazis — but in the early 20th century, the idea not only had mainstream support, including the endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court, but was on the cutting edge of progressive ideas for maintaining public health and welfare. Hitler said U.S. eugenics and immigration laws gave him ideas for how to cleanse Germany.

And there is a relevant lesson to be drawn from eugenics for today’s disputes over science and public policy:

There are many unsettled issues, and it’s also fair to say that even scientific consensus is open to challenge. Again, eugenics, now seen as at best crackpot and at worst monstrous and genocidal, was once not only mainstream but viewed as liberally enlightened. (emphasis added)

2007 is the centennial of the world’s first forced sterilization law passed in the name of eugenics. In commemoration of that event, I will be giving a free public lecture on the topic on Monday, April 16 at 8:00 pm at Seattle Pacific University in Demaray Hall 150. The lecture is sponsored by the Department of Political Science and Geography at SPU and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. My lecture will trace the Social Darwinist roots of eugenics, describe the impact on public policy, and explore the lessons we can learn for the future.