Eugenic Marriage and Sterilization in Early Twentieth Century America
The rise of Mendelian genetics gave substance to the theories of American eugenicists. Eugenicists wanted to interfere with the process of natural selection to improve the human species. Generally the focus was on reproduction in the upper and middle classes. But with the widespread acceptance of Mendel's work, negative eugenicists interested in preventing reproduction by the poor, immigrants, and blacks also became prominent. The goal was to remove all "defective" genes from the population.
Widespread application of negative eugenics occurred in State institutions for the insane, criminal, and feebleminded. By 1930 sterilization laws--sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell--existed in twenty-eight states. Similarly, articles in popular magazines at the time stressed that the white population should consider eugenics in selecting marriage partners and encouraged white families to have large numbers of children.
Eugenics was billed as a "child welfare movement" seeking to improve children through better breeding. This movement gained increased popularity in reaction to the huge influx of immigrants arriving in the US between 1890 and 1910. Hidden just beneath the surface of an allegedly scientific endeavor was the ugly reality of race prejudice. Limits on interracial marriage and other controls on reproduction were the result.
Hemrich's paper explores the effects of eugenics on American immigrants and the black community, and attempts to pass eugenical marriage legislation. Eugenics sought to restrict marriage of the unfit and marriage between native whites and blacks. However, eugenicists were most influential in lobbying for the sterilization laws for the institutionalized. The rise of eugenic sterilization laws was an attempt to provide easy and empirical answers to a generation of native white Americans disillusioned with the seeming inefficacy of social welfare movements.
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