When you hear the word “eugenics,” what comes to mind? Some of you might not have a clue, or some of you may have heard the word used in connection with what the Nazis did during the reign of Hitler. I only had a vague idea about what eugenics was before I took an interim class this past January on this subject. It seemed like a very interesting thing to study, so I signed up for it, but I never would have imagined what I was going to learn.
A quick definition of eugenics is: a pseudo-science created in order to rid the gene pool of “undesirable” traits. In other words, those who supported eugenics wanted to get rid of things such as inheritable diseases, body features (such as obesity), criminality, and pauperism (poverty) by removing these traits from the population. Eugenicists believed that almost everything about a person was determined by his DNA rather than the environment in which he was raised. For example, they believed that a person who was born into poverty would likely grow up and remain in poverty because his or her parents passed on traits for lack of intelligence. Children of criminals would also likely become criminals because of the “bad-behavior” gene they passed on.
According to Edwin Black, the author of War Against the Weak (the textbook for my class), eugenic thought began during the 1800’s in England. It started because of the problem of the poor. They were everywhere; the economy was down the tubes because very few had money to spend. This started in the mid 1500s when King Henry VIII broke ties with the Roman Catholic Church because of its refusal to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Before this, the church had provided for the poor because most of the people belonged to the church. This meant that the poor became the government’s responsibility, and as we know, the government always seems to mess up its responsibilities. When the government took over the church, a distinct pauper class emerged. The poor became a burden upon those who had money, and they became sick of it. As this feeling emerged, so did knowledge of inheritable traits because of the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel. As knowledge about genetics was becoming more well-known, people started drawing conclusions about the ties of poverty to one’s genetic code. Rather than doing more research about genetics, scientists began to propose marriage laws to keep the poor from marrying each other and producing another generation of impoverished. As these eugenic ideas were circulated more and more, America caught wind of them, but the level to which they took these ideas is staggering.
Unlike England, America’s classes were mainly divided by racial and ethnic differences. Severe race hatred was abundant. This made America a prime place for eugenics to take root. As American scientists began to contemplate these ideas, they came to realize that matrimonial laws would not be able to prevent “unfit” children from being born to the extent that they wanted. They decided that more drastic measures should be taken to make sure that those who they deemed unfit would not be able to have children. Their solution to this problem was to enact marriage laws, like those in England, but in addition to create huge institutions in which to store information about millions of Americans. The information that was gathered included things such as family heritage, family history of disabilities, mental illness, physical features, and financial situation. People thought nothing of it, but it was a clever way by eugenicists to identify unfit families. I wish I could tell you what “unfit” meant in the context of American eugenics, but that is not possible because there is no scientific definition for determining whether or not someone is unfit. It varied from scientist to scientist. One such institution that gathered personal information was the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Springs Harbor, New York. Here Charles Davenport and Henry Laughlin, two of the foremost eugenicists in America, worked to identify unfit families. Once a family or person had been deemed unfit by doctors, they were sterilized, to keep them from procreating. In all 65,000 or even more were sterilized in America until 1979, when sterilizations were finally outlawed in all fifty states. This mostly included blacks and “white trash,” most of whom were recent immigrants who lived in poverty because they could not speak English. The shocking thing is that at some point forced sterilizations were legal in about half of our nation’s states. These states included Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
The eugenic ideas fostered in America traveled to Germany and caught the attention of Adolf Hitler. He began to study the works of some American eugenicists. Ideas of a perfect race infected Hitler’s brain and took over his thoughts and speech. His outspokenness about his ideas was one of the contributing factors that led to his imprisonment in 1924. While he was in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf, in which he explained his ideas about race, eugenics and politics. When he became the Fuehrer on August 2, 1934, he worked quickly to establish a eugenic program in Germany. He believed that ridding the country of so called “poor bred” would enable the country to get out of its extremely bad economic situation and also would create a superior race that was free from disability and illness. Through 1937 the Nazi eugenics program sterilized 400,000 men and women who were considered mentally and physically unfit. After 1937 Hitler began another stage in his eugenics program: euthanasia. Euthanasia is the intentional ending of a life, especially of the old and very ill. Hitler allowed tens of thousands of institutionalized men and women to be killed.5 Besides those whom he killed from his own Aryan race, he killed hundreds of thousands of Jews, gypsies, and blacks in death camps all over Europe as a part of his “ethnic cleansing.” Not until the Third Reich was taken down in 1945 by the Allies did the Nazi eugenics program come to a stop.
So what should be the Christian’s response to eugenics? It seems quite obvious that eugenics is wrong, but it can be difficult to understand why from a Reformed perspective.
Eugenics is wrong because of the tactics and processes that the eugenicists used to accomplish their ideas of what was desirable and good. They used sterilizations and genocide in order to rid the gene pool undesirable traits. With regard to sterilizations, God has given humans the gift of life, which includes the gift of children. Eugenicists were taking this opportunity away from people just because they did not think those people were good enough to have children or to make “good ones.” This infringes upon one’s choice to have children. I am not saying that it is a right to have children, but it is a choice you can make if you have been so blessed by God.
As for genocide, that is completely wrong. It clearly violates the sixth commandment, which states that you may not kill. This applies also to those who were not directly involved with Hitler, but still followed eugenic thought. They knew that people were unjustly being killed and did nothing about it. They were at fault as well.
At the heart of the problem was that people were putting their thoughts ahead of God’s plan. They thought that they knew about what was right for mankind. They had lost sight of God, and included in that, God’s will. God makes each person different, with different traits and abilities (or lack thereof). He chooses each person to be a certain way. But supporters of eugenics said that that was not good enough. They wanted to change the human race to reflect their idea of attractiveness and intelligence. They were taking their ideas about what was good or right and applying that to their interactions of everyday life instead of basing what is good and right upon God and his commands.
Eugenics was a sad part of our history as well as the world’s, and it might very well re-emerge as scientific knowledge continues to increase. We must therefore remember that God’s plans are perfect and just, and ours are always flawed.
 Black, Edwin. War Against the Weak. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.
- CFIF. “The Sterilization of America: A Cautionary History.” CFIF.org. May 17, 2002. http://www.cfif.org/htdocs/freedomline/current/in_our_opinion/un_sterile_past.html.
- Hornberger, Jacob. “How Hitler Became a Dictator.”Freedom Daily. The Future of Freedom Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2012. <http://www.fff.org/freedom/fd0403a.asp>.
- “Eugenics.”Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics#Germany>.