Wednesday, July 1, 2015


In the Philanthropy edition of the Lapham's Quarterly I am reading, there was a recreation of an essay from someone who criticized organized charities of her day for catering to "defectives, delinquents, and dependents".  She also advocated birth control, eugenics and restrictive immigration as methods to properly secure the future of "a greater American race".

In light of recent comments by The Donald concerning his opinion of Mexicans, and the negative undertone in the perception of foreigners among those of the far right that invades much of the debate about immigration, Muslims, and pretty much anyone not white, it may surprise you to know that the above quote emanated from Margaret Sanger.  For those unfamiliar with Sanger, in 1921 she founded an organization that later became Planned Parenthood.   

Eugenics is defined as a set of beliefs and practices which aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.  At its face value, it makes sense.   We use such practices to create better strains of grains which produce bigger harvests.  Or bigger beef cattle, faster race horses, purer bred show dogs.  All in the name of the enhancement of traits that best result in more useful, more bountiful progeny.

The idea of eugenics is said to date back to ancient Greece.  I imagine it is as old as man himself, as I am sure that the cave man of old sought out mates that appealed in some way to them, while the women, when they had choice, preferred men whose traits were most attractive to them.

Unfortunately, eugenics attained a bad reputation in the 20th century.  Rather than a method to improve genetic quality through the matching of those with desirable traits, practices were developed that purported to improve overall quality via negative processes, such as forced sterilizations of those with low IQ's.  Finally, these negative strategies found their apex in the eugenics of Nazi Germany which featured the attempted genocide of undesirable "types" of people. 

I say unfortunately, because as scientists became able to identify the nature of our DNA, and to manipulate this source code to possibly eliminate the causes of genetic disease, there was resistance to such attempts to "play God".  While the Nazis misuse of eugenics was horrific, the legacy of such attempts to improve the genetic quality of men, resulted in a misplace distrust of science and retarded the advancements of genetics to combat the diseases that continue to rip apart individuals and their families.

Which brings me back to Margaret Sanger.  Her statements, taken out of context, sound more like those in America who take the easy train by blaming our problems on those that are different, than like those who continue her work within organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  The reason is that Sanger was reacting to a time in America where the institutions of power used pregnancy as a weapon to harness women.  Sanger wanted to empower women to be the "absolute mistress of her own body", and as such advocated education as opposed to the dispersal of diapers.  She wanted a strong America driven by women who bore America's future as a result of informed choices and ability to properly raise those children, not merely because their religion or husbands demanded it of them.  One woman at a time, she sought the improvement of the human condition.

Eugenics continues to have a negative connotation today.   Still, its idea, to improve the genetic quality of man, is at work with every choice made to marry, and have children.  We want the world to be better, and that assumes improvement through our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. 

Hopefully, our methods to create such a world will reside in advancements of science to identify and eliminate DNA abnormalities, in continued improvements to access to information that allow us to make better reproductive choices, and by respecting every person, those similar and dissimilar, and not through messages of dehumanization and hate. 

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