Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Mental Health in Progressive #America: #Eugenics

Mental Health In Progressive America: Eugenics

What Do You Mean I Can't Marry Him?

        Elsa stared silently towards Juliette in shock. Can’t marry her? “Why would you forbid our union when you have welcomed me into your home and your family?”
Juliette answered, “If there were some other way I would not hesitate to support my son in his decision. I want you as my daughter. I already love you as if you were my own.”
“Then why take this from him?”
“It’s not me, Elsa. Ohio Law forbids any person who has epilepsy, is a drunkard, an imbecile, or insane from obtaining a marriage license or marrying.”
“But Franklin is none of those.”
“It doesn’t matter, Elsa. When he applies for the marriage license the county clerk will ask him, under oath, to testify he does not suffer from epilepsy, is not a drunkard, imbecile, or insane. He can’t lie to the courts about that.”

Today's topic of discussion is a touchy one and it might disturb some of my readers to know that before Nazi Germany practiced Eugenics it had long been established in the United States as the norm. What is Eugenics? Webster's Dictionary defines eugenics as "a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed." The term was first used in 1883 but the science had been in practiced long before that. 

Progressive Era Americans did not view eugenics as a science but instead viewed it as a means to preserving the dominant group. The American Eugenics Movement originated with noted English scientist Sir Francis Galton. After reading Charles Darwin's theory of evolution Sir Galton concluded human could direct their own evolutionary development through selective breeding. In 1883, Sir Galton named his theory Eugenics. The Eugenic Movement quickly spread throughout the world. 

Early followers of the Eugenic Movement believed Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon peoples were the superior race. They supported anti-miscegenation laws and strict immigration laws. Anti-miscegenation laws are laws that criminalize interracial marriages. They also supported the forcible sterilization of the disabled,"immoral", and poor. Laws throughout the United States were passed to enforce the eugenic beliefs. Although Ohio did pass a law forbidding epileptics, drunks and mentally handicapped people from marriage it never passed a sterilization law. The state had hoped by separating the feeble groups from the main population it would make Ohio families stronger. Indiana was the first state to pass a Sterilization Law in 1907.  Sterilization Laws were very common in the United States and are still talked about today. A Sterilization Law forces a certain population to become sterile or face imprisonment. 

An American Eugenics poster from the early 20th century
Eugenics were widely accepted by Americans and the academic community. Population groups targeted by the Eugenic Laws included the mentally disabled; alcoholics; epileptics; people who were blind, deaf or disabled; poor people on welfare; criminals; women deemed promiscuous; and child of rape victims. Thirty-three states practiced eugenics. Most of their victims came from the mental institutions and prisons. At first the eugenics only targeted the mentally ill but as the years passed their list grew to include the other sub groups I have mentioned above. Eugenics was a very popular movement that especially targeted minority groups. It was not uncommon for a poor African American woman to give birth in the hospital only to be sterilized soon after. The doctor would tell her that her appendix needed to be removed and they would have to operate. She would consent to that only to wake up to find she could no longer bear children. 

The Eugenics Movement was well established in the United States by the time Nazi Germany had established their own Eugenic laws. In fact, they were inspired by the American Eugenic Movement. During the 1930's California had created literature to promote eugenics and sterilization. They sent the material overseas to German medical doctors. The Rockfeller Foundation aided Germany in developing their eugenic programs, including the one Josef Mengele established before he was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

In 1934, California eugenics leader C. M. Goethe; after returning from German, where more than 5,000 people per month were being forcibly sterilized; bragged to a colleague ""You will be interested to know that your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program. Everywhere I sensed that their opinions have been tremendously stimulated by American thought . . . I want you, my dear friend, to carry this thought with you for the rest of your life, that you have really jolted into action a great government of 60 million people."

It is estimated 65,000 Americans were victims of the forced sterilization. ABC News reported in 2011, of the 33 states who had sterilization programs only seven have issued a public apology to the victims or acknowledgement of the program. The suggested compensation for each sterilization crime has been established to be between $20,000 to $50,000 per living victim. Most of these victims have died but their families still face the agony and grief that was done to their family member by their state government.

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