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We Must Keep Eugenics Away From Genetics

By Edwin Black
Edwin Black is the author of the newly released "War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race" and "IBM and the Holocaust."

October 15, 2003

Yesterday, the Senate overwhelmingly passed America's first serious anti-genetic discrimination bill, which now goes to the House for consideration. The measure would forbid discrimination by insurers, employers and others based on genetic background or identity, just as current protections cover workplace or financial bias because of race, religion and national origin.

If the bill passes the House, it is expected to receive an enthusiastic signature from President George W. Bush. This would mark the first time America has pre-emptively checked an entire category of discrimination before society accumulates thousands of victims. As such, we are confronting our future before a dismal new legacy is created.

In so doing, our nation must also confront the dismal legacy of American eugenics, where genetic information was twisted and distorted into an official crusade to create a master, white, blond-haired and blue-eyed Nordic race. In the process, the reproductive ability of all peoples who did not resemble this Nordic ideal would be eliminated.

The story is an ugly one.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, my research shows, American corporate philanthropy combined with prestigious academic fraud to create eugenics, the pseudoscience that institutionalized race politics enshrined as national policy with enabling legislation in 27 states. The laws were ruled constitutional and the law of the land by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The method? Identifying so-called defective family trees and subjecting them to legislated segregation and sterilization programs. But eugenicists also talked about public gas chambers and medicalized euthanasia. Indeed, doctor-organized euthanasia was sporadically practiced.

The victims: poor people, brown-haired white people, African-Americans, immigrants, Indians, Eastern Europeans, the infirm and really anyone classified outside the superior genetic lines drawn up by American raceologists. The main culprits, according to my book and its documentation, were the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harriman railroad fortune, in league with America's most respected scientists, hailing from such prestigious universities as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, operating out of a complex at Cold Spring Harbor.

Ultimately, my research shows that 60,000 Americans were coercively sterilized - legally and extra-legally. Many never discovered the truth until decades later. Those who actively supported eugenics include America's most progressive figures: Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

American eugenic crusades proliferated into a worldwide campaign and, in the 1920s, came to the attention of Adolf Hitler. Under the Nazis, American eugenic principles were applied without restraint, careening out of control into the Reich's infamous genocide. During the pre-war years, American eugenicists openly supported Germany's program. The Rockefeller Foundation financed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and the work of its central racial scientists, including the program that ultimately sent Dr. Josef Mengele into Auschwitz. As the world recoiled from Nazi atrocities, the American eugenics movement - its institutions and leading scientists - renamed and regrouped under the banner of the science called "human genetics."

After a few generations, human genetics evolved into the enlightened genetic science we know, dedicated to fighting terrible disease and enhancing human life. But now "newgenics" has risen to again persecute and discriminate on the basis of blood ancestry. Insurance companies, employers and others want to exclude those deemed to be insurance risks and even socially unacceptable. Legislators complain this will create a new "genetic ghetto." The legislation now in the House can begin to address this future persecution.

But for legislators and policy makers to defend our future, they need to take a harder look at our past. To do that, state records must be opened, archives must remove artificial doctor-patient classifications, and an army of investigative reporters needs to expose the state-by-state injustices - whether or not that unveils official ethnic cleansing in this country. Governors of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon and California have already apologized for eugenics practiced in their states. That is only a beginning.

Moreover, Wall Street-backed genetic-research corporations must be stripped of their ability to engineer human life in commercial secrecy. It's human life. Why secret? Why proprietary?

So while the House ponders the anti-genetic discrimination bill to guard our future, America must also explore its own biological crimes. Society must ensure that the much needed, long overdue genie of human genetics will never return to the dark days of eugenics - whence it came.

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.


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