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The Crossroads of America?

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on April 13th, 2007


The state of Indiana has apologized for its role in the eugenics movement. It's not the first state to do so, but this is particularly significant because Indiana was the first government in the world to endorse eugenic sterilization. A historical marker at the statehouse, unveiled in a ceremony yesterday, reads:

By late 1800s, Indiana authorities believed criminality, mental problems, and pauperism were hereditary. Various laws were enacted based on this belief. In 1907, Governor J. Frank Hanly approved first state eugenics law making sterilization mandatory for certain individuals in state custody. Sterilizations halted 1909 by Governor Thomas R. Marshall. Indiana Supreme Court ruled 1907 law unconstitutional 1921, citing denial of due process under Fourteenth Amendment. 1927 law reinstated sterilization, adding court appeals. Approximately 2,500 total in state custody were sterilized. Governor Otis R. Bowen approved repeal of all sterilization laws 1974; by 1977, related restrictive marriage laws repealed.
As a native of Indiana, where I spent my first twenty years, the story was already close to home. But when I saw the photo of Jamie Coleman (above), a woman present at the marker commemoration who'd been sterilized in 1971, it moved even closer. She is three years younger than my mother. The law wasn't repealed until the year I was born. Given that eugenic sterilization was often conducted sloppily, particularly upon the poor, and given as well the characteristics of my family, it's not out of the question that my family could have been affected.

Of course, the eugenics story is not over. Suggestions for apologies by other states for their programs have been controversial. More importantly, eugenics continues. Peter Marcus, an OB-GYN professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said, "Eugenics is still around, it just takes a different way.... Whether you give that right to the parent or the state, some people will ask the question of whether that right should be given at all. That's where modern eugenics is."

A number of social, economic, and technological trajectories support Marcus's disturbing assertion. Health and behavioral problems are increasingly viewed as having genetic sources, while social problems are seen as needing technical solutions. The dominant "swim or sink" framework of the neoliberal market society encourages parents to view their children through a lens of competition, and to give their children any possible edge. A wide array of prenatal and preconception genetic tests give these parents the tools to do so, with vast new possibilities of genetic enhancement lurking around the corner. Meanwhile, the gutting of social welfare systems offers a dark future for those children whose parents may have resisted the social pressures to have only the "best" children. Finally, the most disenfranchised and vulnerable groups segments of society are now "offered" the "option" of turning their body over to authorities for a "better chance," whether it' s sterilization for crack addicts [PDF] or using prison inmates as research subjects and organ donors.

William Schneider, a history professor and coordinator of a symposium on eugenics in Indiana, said, "The point is, eugenics was not just a product of the bad old days. People had the best intentions, or at least they thought they were the best intentions, and they had the best science, or at least they thought it was the best science, but they got it wrong."

Let's hope we have the collective wisdom to get it right this time. We need this wisdom because we have the "best" technology, not in spite of it.



Posted in Eugenics, Jesse Reynolds's Blog Posts, The States


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