Eugenics & the Progressive Movement

Eugenics & the Progressive Movement


Many early progressives advocated eugenics, or human engineering, to purge society’s gene pool of undesirable traits. In Looking Backward, socialist author Edward Bellamy mused about “race purification,” a fantasy shared by many utopian novelists. Indiana’s state government in 1907 became the first in the modern world to codify eugenic principles, and more than two dozen additional American states soon followed suit. These states did not dictate the coupling of ideal mates, which could be called “positive eugenics.” Rather, they advocated “negative eugenics” – i.e., the sterilization of those harboring undesirable genetic makeups, precisely as Bellamy had advocated.

Eugenics was wholly compatible with the progressive era’s faith in science, the future, the regulatory potential of the state, and human perfectibility. The Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution helped bankroll organizations that sought to advance eugenics. Among the more notable progressives to embrace the practice were the anarcho-communist Emma Goldman, NAACP founder W.E.B. Dubois, author H.G. Wells, political scientist Harold Laski, socialist reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, biology instructor/atheist Edward Aveling, economist John Maynard Keynes, playwright George Bernard Shaw, World Wildlife Fund founder Julian Huxley, sex theorist Havelock Ellis, and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. Sanger, taking issue with the Church’s view that eugenics was immoral because the souls of all people were equally valuable in the eyes of God, said:

“My own position is that the Catholic doctrine is illogical, not in accord with science, and definitely against the social welfare and race improvement. Assuming that God does want an increasing number of worshipers of the Catholic faith, does he also want an increasing number of feeble-minded, insane, criminal, and diseased worshipers?”

In 1913, Brown University’s progressive sociologist Lester Ward endorsed eugenics as a means of fighting “that modern scientific fatalism known as laissez-faire,” and of facilitating “the betterment of the human race.” “The end and the aim of the eugenicists cannot be reproached,” he expanded. “The race is far from perfect. Its condition is deplorable. Its improvement is entirely feasible, and in the highest degree desirable.”

Speaking on a related theme, the playwright George Bernard Shaw advocated the creation of a panel tasked with the duty of deciding who was, and who was not, worthy of being allowed to continue living. Said Shaw:

“You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”

By 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court had accepted the progressive belief that the state ought to be empowered to determine who should and should not be permitted to reproduce. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Court’s progressive icon, wrote in 1915 that his “starting point for an ideal for the law” would be the “coordinated human effort … to build a race.” He elaborated:

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for the crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

All told, some 60,000 Americans were sterilized by the decrees of state governments.

– Sources: A Conservative History of the American Left, by Daniel Flynn; Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg.

Additional Resources:

The Frightening Agenda of the American Eugenics Movement
By Anthony Platt
July 7, 2003

Scientific Origins of Eugenics
By Elof Carlson

A Dark Past: Contraception, Abortion, and the Eugenics Movement
By Jonah Goldberg
June 24, 2008

Eugenics Movement Reaches Its Height

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