Everyday Eugenics

“Eugenics…is a scavenger ideology, exploiting and reinforcing anxieties over race, gender, sexuality and class and bringing them into the service of nationalism, white supremacy, and heterosexism…The verbiage of eugenics, the valor, neutrality, and redemptive power accorded science and its counterfeiters, has enabled it to extend itself not only to diverse demographic target groups, but to disparate political philosophies…it is this very elusiveness that has endowed eugenics and its permutations with such resilience.”

Nancy Ordover, American Eugenics, p. 207

 Very few people today in the U.S. would openly identify as eugenicists, yet eugenic assumptions are widespread, interacting with and attaching to other biological determinisms that influence the fields of science, health, economics, politics and popular culture. Like many other powerful ideas, the power of eugenic ideology lies partly in its capacity to not draw attention to itself, to appear commonplace.

Today eugenics is typically framed in terms of debates over the promise and perils of new reproductive technologies, from fetal genetic screening to the cloning of human beings. While there is a pressing need for feminists and progressives to engage critically in these debates, we also should pay attention to more everyday manifestations of eugenics and how they affect movements all along the political spectrum.

In the U.S., conventional wisdom has it that eugenics disappeared with the exposure of Nazi atrocities.  In reality, not only did eugenics survive, but eugenicists continued to occupy prominent positions in population, biology, and related fields.  Moreover, eugenic sterilizations, mainly of poor people of color, continued in a number of states well into the latter half of the 20th century.

Eugenics was a particularly powerful force in the post-war population control establishment. For example, prominent eugenicists were influential in the founding and development of the Population Council.  Frederick Osborn, the leader of the American Eugenics Society, served as both vice-president and president of the Population Council until 1959.  The founders of the council debated whether to emphasize qualitative or quantitative aspects of population.  In the end, because of Cold War fears of the ‘population explosion’ in the Third World, they reached the decision to focus on the quantitative dimension, i.e. reducing population growth, because of its supposed urgency.

However, the eugenic dimension of demography hardly disappeared.  Edmund Ramsden argues that the term “population quality”, by blurring the lines between social, economic, and genetic quality, allowed for eugenics to become more respectable.  The council funded a number of eugenics research projects in the U.S. and its contraceptive research had a definite eugenic thrust.  In 1968 Osborn wrote, “Eugenic goals are most likely to be attained under another name than eugenics.” Today, as population growth rates decline around the would, demography is focusing once again on ‘quality’ concerns such as the differential fertility of competing ethnic groups and population aging, especially in Europe where a growing number of policymakers are urging white women to have more babies as an alternative to immigrant labor.

 Eugenics also persisted in the biological sciences.  In the Molecular Vision of Life Lily Kay describes how funding from the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1930s spawned a new molecular biology that by ignoring the role of environmental factors, laid the cognitive foundations for genetic engineering and the use of biology as a technocratic tool of social control.  Rather than dying with Nazi eugenics, the eugenic dimensions of molecular biology gathered steam in the post-war period.  Famous biologist Lionel Pauling, for example, argued for the purification of human germ plasm and population control to reduce the number of defective children born.  Reminiscent of the Nazis’ yellow star for Jews, he even went so far as to advocate tattooing the foreheads of young people with sickle-cell and other defective genes.

 Thus, while eugenic ideologies and practices have changed over time, they have hardly gone away. Following are some key arenas where eugenic ideas continue to circulate today.


American environmentalism has had a long and strong relationship with eugenics. Many of the early conservationists were eugenicists who believed in maintaining the purity of both nature and the gene pool as well as the manifest destiny of the white Anglo-Saxon race to steward (and colonize) the environment. In California, Mexican immigrants in particular were identified as a threat to both society and the environment. (See Alexandra Stern).

Eugenic ideas and actors have continued to influence the environmental movement.  In the ‘greening of hate’, anti-immigrant groups masquerading as environmentalists (with names like Carrying Capacity Network, Population-Environment Balance, etc.) have tried to penetrate and take over liberal environmental groups, particularly the country’s largest member-based environmental organization, the Sierra Club.  Anti-immigrant groups blame pollution and urban sprawl on immigrant-induced population growth and use billboards of pristine landscapes (“amber waves of grain”) under threat from immigration to build popular support for anti-immigration ballot initiatives.
Fortunately, groups that monitor the right are now exposing the links between these so-called environmentalists and white supremacist organizations.  For example, we know now that Virginia Abernethy, once a popular and ‘respectable’ spokeswoman on the population-environment circuit, is a member of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. She has publicly stated that races shouldn’t mix.
  With the increased exposure of the ‘greening of hate’, environmental groups are growing more wary of right-wing attempts at penetration. Yet much remains to be done to challenge the problematic assumptions, language and images that make American environmentalism particularly susceptible to eugenic influences. These include persistent beliefs in ‘pure’ nature, pristine wilderness and a clear division between native and non-native species. 

For example, as feminist biologist Banu Subramaniam points out, the same xenophobic metaphors about invasions of hyper-breeding illegal aliens are applied to non-native plant and animal species and human immigrants, stoking fears of the foreign in both nature and culture. Indeed, as Subramaniam notes, we need to keep close attention to the traffic between the worlds of nature and culture at a moment when heightened fears of globalization (and now terrorism) are leading to a resurgence of nativism and romanticizing of the local.  Notions of natural purity and cultural purity blend into and reinforce each other, making racism and ethnic prejudice more acceptable in the process.

Gender, sexualities, bodies: 

Biological determinism is much in vogue these days as the media bombards us with messages that we are, in the end, mainly a function of our genes or hormones.  In the process, gender and sexuality are being re-centered in the body rather than in social relations. Biology is becoming the legitimizing script, providing fertile feeding grounds for the scavenger ideology of eugenics. 

For example, queer rights activists find themselves on tricky ground when it comes to the search for a genetic basis of homosexuality.  “Of all the groups targeted by biological determinism,” writes Nancy Ordover, “queers seem to be the only ones who have looked to eugenics to deliver us from marginalization.” Ordover is referring to the push by several gay male scientists in the 1990s to locate a “gay gene,” partly as a strategy to win greater social acceptance and legal rights for homosexuals. If homosexuality is hereditary or congenital, the logic goes, then lesbians and gays have protected minority status and cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their biology.  The search for a gay gene is not only scientifically flawed, Ordover argues, but politically flawed, reinforcing eugenic thinking in other arenas (race, crime, urbanization and class) and posing no substantive challenge to homophobia.  She urges queers “to opt out of nature versus nurture arguments altogether.” The transgender movement too faces issues of biological determinism, particularly the question of how to make sure hormonal treatments for becoming more male or female do not reinforce problematic gender ideologies and binaries.

In relation to the body, perhaps the most everyday — and often unexamined — manifestation of eugenics is in aesthetics.  In the heyday of eugenics in the 1930s, the promotion of ideal body types took place in racist research on phenotypes, state fair contests to find the fittest (white) families, and graphic and sculptured representations of the ideal Nordic male and female. The perfect man and woman of the future would not only be geniuses, but have beautiful, efficient and controlled bodies. 

This aesthetic survives today, taking a variety of forms from paying blond, blue-eyed Ivy League women to be egg donors to the pages of fashion magazines.  Where it may be most insidious is in the growing prevalence of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia among young women searching for an elusive physical perfection, sense of control and in some cases hyper-athletic physical efficiency.  Although eating disorders have complex causes, we should not underestimate the legacy of eugenics in breeding the psychological monster of perfectionism that terrorizes so many women.  The current mass marketing of hormonal birth control pills like Seasonale that have the ‘liberating’ side effect of stopping your periods also plays on the eugenic aesthetic of a clean, efficient female body.

One of the great ironies of the present moment in the U.S. is the resurgence of race-based biological and genetic determinism at a time when scientific research is exploding myths about the biological basis of race. For example, research has shown that genetic variation within a group is much greater than variation among “races” and that geographic proximity is a much better marker for genetic similarity than skin color. 

As anthropologist Alan Goodman notes, another frequent error is the assumption that racial differences in disease are due to genetic differences among races. Not only does this over-emphasize and simplify the role of genes as a causal agent of disease, but it diverts attention from the social, economic and environmental determinants of illness, including the negative effects of racism.  Native Americans, for example, may indeed suffer a higher rate of Type II diabetes, but poverty, discrimination, poor diet and reservation culture may explain this higher incidence much more than any genetic predisposition. Racism more than race is inscribed in the body.

The social forces which perpetuate the biologizing and geneticizing of race can be found at varying points along the political spectrum.  Pharmaceutical interests profit on these myths; the Washington Post, for example, recently published an article about the GenSpec brand of dietary supplements with the title, “Maker of race-based vitamins says they are targeting real biological differences” Racist social conservatives are still fond of blaming inequality and poverty on the inferior intelligence of black people and the liberal press has proved all too willing to go along. A current example is the attention paid to Donohue and Levitt’s theory that the drop in crime in the 1990s is due to the 1973 legalization of abortion which kept potential criminal offspring from teenage, single and African American mothers from being born.

Parts of the left, through some forms of rigid race-based identity politics, have also played a role. The more didactic approaches to anti-racism education can ironically serve to reify and consolidate the black/white binary while undermining possibilities for solidarity on the basis of class, gender, or a shared political perspective.  The challenge remains how to address very real white racism and privilege without buying into biological constructs of race based on having the right genes, skin color and ‘blood.’ The recent attempt of several famous black intellectuals to trace their African heritage through DNA testing is ringing alarm bells in progressive African American circles.


Current forms of eugenics are complementary to, if not the product of, neoliberal ideologies and policies. These complementarities include:

Concepts of burden – Competitive capitalism has long required rationales for why people are poor and expendable. Under neoliberalism, the shrinking of the welfare state (which never truly existed in the U.S. in any case) casts more and more people as drains on the economy and the state — not just the poor and people of color, but also elderly people and people with disabilities. It is not surprising then that one can hear echoes of negative eugenics in population control measures and technologies targeted at poor women (welfare ‘reform’ family caps, the Project Prevention organization that gives incentives to drug users to use long-term contraception or be sterilized, recent FDA approval of quinacrine chemical sterilization trials) and in genetic screening for fetal disability.
Consumer choice – Just as the concept of burden is intrinsic to negative eugenics, so is the concept of individual choice to ‘positive’ eugenics and new reproductive technologies. These technologies are often promoted to well-off women in terms of consumer choice and ‘designer babies.’ In a sense, burden and choice are two sides of the same coin as both impose reproductive duties on women. (See Dorothy Roberts.)  Eugenics, past and present, is also intricately linked to industrial mass production through the design and marketing of ever more standardized ‘ideal’ consumer goods and the associated rise in social expectations and conformity, faith in technological progress, and belief in consumer rights as the foundation of free enterprise and democracy. (See Christina Cogdell.)
Globalization – Here we need to look more carefully at both ideologies and practices of global out-sourcing when it comes to genetic engineering and assisted reproduction.  In addition, stem cell and cloning research is becoming the latest marker of which country is ‘out front’ in the competitive race to the new technological frontier.

Efficiency – Linked to all of the above is the heightened focus on ‘efficiency’ as privatization, competition, the information technology speed-up and the time/space compression of globalization put ever more demands on the human body and body politic to make more ‘efficient’ use of resources.  Just as at the beginning of the last century, eugenics is linked to the mad drive for efficiency.  Nowhere is this clearer than in health policy where the priority given to finding, treating and preventing the genetic causes of both physical and mental disease is touted as more efficient than, for example, identifying and ameliorating environmental and social causes.  Most disorders are blamed on genes today, and the quick-fix solution is pharmaceutical.   Genetic screening, meanwhile, threatens to become a means by which health insurance companies, in their ‘efficient’ search for higher profits, can deny people coverage.

The national security state:

  Any discussion of eugenics must also take on the escalating role of the prison-military-industrial complex.  It is no exaggeration to say that the reproductive capacities and family-making possibilities of poor black men and women are being seriously curtailed with their extremely high rates of incarceration, often with long sentences that extend through their reproductive years.  In addition, poor women of color are being imprisoned for supposed reproductive crimes, such as ‘fetal abuse’ for taking drugs during pregnancy.

Coupled with tax cuts for the rich, the diversion of billions of dollars toward the ‘war on terror’ and war in Iraq, meanwhile, is creating very real budget deficits, with social programs increasingly cut to support national defense. In the hands of conservative ideologues, fears of scarcity are manipulated in order to cast more and more poor people as burdens and to foment racist assaults on immigrants and people of color.  This climate helps foster and legitimize eugenic thinking.  A more speculative issue is whether there is a relationship between the widespread use of surveillance technologies in the national security state and increased acceptance of the surveillance mechanisms of genetic screening.
Last but not least, we also have to ask just who is being used as cannon fodder in the war in Iraq, who is viewed as more expendable, more fit to die.  Not eugenics exactly, but related.  And the answer, yet again, is poor people and people of color.
How to respond?

In order to understand the workings of eugenics in the present, we need to read up on history and learn from past resistance. It wasn’t the horrors of Nazism that brought the era of compulsory sterilization to a close in the U.S., for example, but the political actions of feminist, civil rights and immigrant rights advocates.

Secondly, we need to look critically at how eugenics thinking penetrates and permeates a wide array of social, economic, political and scientific arenas.  As part of that endeavor, we need to look critically at the left as well as the right.  We also need to challenge totalizing and naturalizing discourses, even if they seem in the short term to converge with our own political interests, e.g. the defense of pure nature and native place in environmental and anti-globalization movements.

Thirdly, in terms of genetic research and the new reproductive technologies, we have to become literate in both their science and political economy in order to make informed judgments about what we are for and what we are against.

And finally, we need to use our political imaginations to create a more powerful vision of a non-eugenic future that celebrates diversity, creativity and difference, challenges neoliberal notions of efficiency and the national security state, harnesses scientific research for the real benefit of humanity and the environment, and does away once and for all with the false and dangerous categories of fit and unfit.


— Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA and a longstanding activist in the international women’s health movement.  She is co-editor with Banu Subramaniam and Charles Zerner of the recent anthology, Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties and author of a political thriller about the Far Right, The Truth about Fire.

Resources and References

Groups that do progressive analysis and campaigning on eugenics issues include Center for Genetics and Society (www.genetics-and-society.org), Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org), Committee on Women, Population and the Environment (www.cwpe.org), and the Corner House (www.thecornerhouse.org.uk).

Cogdell, Christina. 2004. Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s. Philadelphia: University of California Press.

Goodman, Alan. 2005.  “Reflections – Impure Biology: The Deadly Synergy of Racialization and Geneticization,” in Hartmann et al., eds., Making Threats, 149-158.

Hartmann, Betsy, Subramaniam, Banu, and Zerner, Charles, eds. 2005.  Making Threats: Biofears and Environmental Anxieties. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ordover, Nancy. 2003. American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ramsden, Edmund. 2001. “Between Quality and Quantity: The Population Council and the Politics of ‘Science-making’ in Eugenics and Demography, 1952-1965.” Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports Online.

Roberts, Dorothy. 2005. “Population Control and Reprogenetics in U.S. Neoliberalism.” Speech for the plenary on The Politics and Resurgence of Population Policies, 10th International Women and Health Meeting, New Delhi, India, September 23.

Stern, Alexandra Minna. 2005. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Subramaniam, Banu. 2005. “The Aliens Have Landed! Reflections on the Rhetoric of Biological Invasions,” in Hartmann et al, eds., Making Threats, 135-148.


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