- PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - U.S. doctors who once
believed that sterilization could help rid society of mental illness and
crime launched a 20th century eugenics movement that in some ways paralleled
the policies of Nazi Germany, researchers said on Monday.
- A Yale study tracing a once-popular movement aimed at
improving society through selective breeding, indicates that state-authorized
sterilizations were carried out longer and on a larger scale in the United
States than previously believed, beginning with the first state eugenics
law in Indiana in 1907.
- Despite modern assumptions that American interest in
eugenics waned during the 1920s, researchers said sterilization laws had
authorized the neutering of more than 40,000 people classed as insane or
``feebleminded'' in 30 states by 1944.
- Another 22,000 underwent sterilization from the mid-1940s
to 1963, despite weakening public support and revelations of Nazi atrocities,
according to the study, funded by the United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum and the Merck Co. Foundation.
- Forced sterilization was legal in 18 U.S. states, and
most states with eugenics laws allowed people to be sterilized without
their consent by leaving the decision to a third party.
- ``The comparative histories of the eugenical sterilization
campaigns in the United States and Nazi Germany reveal important similarities
of motivation, intent and strategy,'' the study's authors wrote in the
Annals of Internal Medicine, a journal published by the American College
of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine.
- Eugenics sprang from the philosophy of social Darwinism,
which envisioned human society in terms of natural selection and suggested
that science could engineer progress by attacking supposedly hereditary
problems including moral decadence, crime, venereal disease, tuberculosis
- ``The eugenics laws in the United States were virulent,
just as they were in Sweden, France and Australia,'' said Art Caplan, head
of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics.
- The U.S. practice ended in the 1960s after being overwhelmed
by court challenges and the civil rights movement.
- German and American eugenics advocates both believed
science could solve social problems, tended to measure the worth of the
individual in economic terms and felt mental illness a threat to society
grave enough to warrant compulsive sterilization.
- And while Nazi claims of Aryan superiority are well known,
researchers said U.S. advocates of sterilization worried that the survival
of old-stock America was being threatened by the influx of ``lower races''
from southern and eastern Europe.
- There was also mutual admiration, with early U.S. policies
drawing glowing reviews from authorities in pre-Nazi Germany.
- ``Germany is perhaps the most progressive nation in restricting
fecundity among the unfit,'' editors of the New England Journal of Medicine
wrote in 1934, a year after Hitler became chancellor.
- U.S. Eugenics Movement Waned
- But the study, based partly on old editorials from the
New England journal and the Journal of the American Medical Association,
also demonstrated how the U.S. eugenics movement gradually waned while
its Nazi counterpart carried out 360,000 to 375,000 sterilizations during
the 1930s and grew to encompass so-called ``mercy'' killings.
- ``In the United States, a combination of public unease,
Roman Catholic opposition, federal democracy, judicial review and critical
scrutiny by the medical profession reversed the momentum,'' the article
- The U.S. practice of neutering ``mentally defective''
individuals was backed by most leading geneticists and often justified
on grounds that it would relieve the public of the cost of caring for future
generations of the mentally ill.
- Sterilizations also took place mainly in public mental
institutions, where the poor and ethnic or racial minorities were housed
in disproportionately high numbers.
- ``It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting
to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their
imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing
their kind,'' Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the
majority opinion of a landmark eugenics case in 1926.
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