Clarence Thomas and Eugenics

A chart showing simple Mendelian inheritance

A chart showing simple Mendelian inheritance from “Preventive Medicine and Hygiene” (1917).

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood. The issues of the case can be found here. I want to focus on the concurring opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas has long wanted to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark 1965 case in which laws prohibiting the sale of contraceptives were declared unconstitutional. Griswold was an important case to establish a right to privacy, something Thomas simply does not think existsWhat is new about Thomas’s concurrence in Box is that he is using the history of eugenics to do so.  A really bad and dishonest history.

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An American Dilemma and Eugenics

A woodcarving of Jesus and Satan

The word “eugenic” is an unquestionably negative adjective –tagging something eugenic is to disparage it, except in the rare case of someone who attempts to resuscitate some aspect of the vilified American eugenics movement. However, if asked, it is doubtful that those who employ the term to vilify something they object to can give an accurate definition of the term. Those who turn to the history of science to define the term are likely to be frustrated. The American eugenics movement was in fact so broad and historical scholarship on it has been so profuse that by the end of the twentieth century the word “eugenics” was applied to so many different activities that it was of little use in describing much of anything. And, since every industrialized country in the world had some kind of program under the rubric “eugenics” the problem becomes more acute if we move beyond the United States. Today, historians, activists, journalists and assorted political pundits can easily find evidence in the many activities associated with the word eugenics to support nearly any assertion they wanted to make. “What,” asked Philip Pauly a quarter century ago, “is then left of ‘eugenics’ apart from Francis Galton’s euphonious term and impressionistic images of semiutopian technocratic professionals?” (p. 133).

Unfortunately, outside the specialists in the history of biology, “eugenics” is often assumed to lead directly to the Nazi Final Solution. In a society that expressly values diversity and civil rights, the word “eugenicist” carries the same sort of weight that being labeled a pinko carried during the red scare. Diane Paul, who has extensively studied and written about both the history of the American eugenics movement and ongoing genetic research and interventions that are sometimes associated with the label eugenic, wrote, “I argue that efforts to demarcate eugenics from non-eugenics will prove as fruitless as analogous efforts to demarcate ‘science’ from non-science’ for the same reason; eugenics, like science, is simply much too heterogeneous. I believe that disputes about the meaning of eugenics are also unproductive. At present, the term is wielded like a club. To label a policy ‘eugenics’ is to say, in effect, that it is not just bad, but beyond the pale. It is a way of ending, not promoting, discussion.” (pp. 96-7)

Rhetorician Richard Weaver would call the word “eugenics” in our world a “devil term.” By this he meant a single term that stood for an idea or concept that was so repellent as to be universally rejected. Writing in the early 1960s, Weaver suggested that “un-American” or “Communist” or, significantly, “Nazi,” were a good examples of such “term[s] of repulsion” (p. 223).  A devil term cuts of discussion. It stops inquiry. The use of them betrays a desire to eliminate any further discussion of the problem.

I bring this up because one of my Twitter frenemies keeps bringing up (even though no one asked) his belief that “Gunnar Myrdal was a hardcore-eugenicist!” if I mention Myrdal’s enormously influential book, An American Dilemma.  Published in 1944, AAD set the stage for how Americans wrote and thought about race relations for two decades. It is widely considered one of the most important books of the twentieth century on race relations. What could it mean that this anti-racist classic was authored by a “hardcore eugenicist?” To answer that question, we need a clear understanding of “eugenics” which, as Paul noted years ago, is hard to come by.

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