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What is Eugenics?

Updated Sep 15, 2014

Study of human improvement by genetic means. The first comprehensive description of eugenics was made by Francis Galton, who in Hereditary Genius (1869) proposed that a system of arranged marriages between men of distinction and women of wealth would eventually produce a gifted race.

The American Eugenics Society, founded in 1926, supported Galton’s theories. U.S. eugenicists also supported restriction on immigration from nations with “inferior” stock, such as Italy, Greece, and countries of eastern Europe.

Eugenics gained the ear of U.S. policy makers at the turn of the 20th century, when popular opinion deemed it a legitimate science. Certain segments of American society feared that mass immigration and the development of new birth control methods would “dilute” the political and cultural superiority of the United States—defined as a majority native-born, white population.

During the 1910s and 1920s, eugenicists helped shape legislation designed to stem these perceived threats through anti-miscegenation laws, immigration control and reform, and sterilization programs aimed at eliminating “undesirable” demographics. By 1929, 30 states had passed sterilization laws inspired by the findings of these “scientists.”

Instances of forced sterilization continued into the 1970s. Eugenicists came under criticism beginning in the 1930s and were discredited after the German Nazis used eugenics to support the extermination of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals.

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