Opinion: Daily Journal

Asking the Right Questions

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. Troy Kickler, Director of the North Carolina History Project. Learn more about the project at northcarolinahistory.org.

Some people never ask the right questions. Or even ask anything. Take science and government intervention, for example. Many progressive actions (whatever progress is, no one has defined it sufficiently for me) are nothing more than barbarism revived. Case in point: the eugenics movement in 20th-century North Carolina.

What is eugenics? It’s the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).

The idea in North Carolina no doubt grew out of the Progressive movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Progressivism, to risk oversimplifying a nuanced movement, can be summed up as an effort to create a more egalitarian and improved America. To that end, more than a few Progressives, including Margaret Sanger, the inspiration for Planned Parenthood, advocated eugenics.

Before Nazi Germany instituted forced sterilization programs, North Carolina established the Eugenics Board of North Carolina in 1929 and started forced sterilizations (negative eugenics). When states decreased the number of sterilizations in the mid-1900s, North Carolina’s number uniquely increased. In 57 years, according to some sources, the government had violated 7,600 individuals. Thankfully, the state ended the Eugenics Board of North Carolina in 1974.

The Eugenics Board’s purpose had been, as much as possible, to alleviate poverty and eradicate addiction and crime. This was done by giving social workers power to identify “undesirables” and recommend to a five-member state board that a person be sterilized. North Carolina allowed sterilizations for three reasons: epilepsy and two broadly defined categories, sickness and feeblemindedness. North Carolina approved 90 percent of the petitions.

The eugenics program targeted poor and rural North Carolinians. As I viewed the exhibit, on display at the Museum of History in Raleigh, that shed light on this dark moment in North Carolina’s past, I wondered how many so-called feebleminded Tar Heels came from rural areas and to what extent the cultural clash between urban and rural America contributed to interpretations of feeblemindedness. Whatever the extent, the victims were poor and were duped into sacrificing their reproductive abilities.

Although more women (4,989) were sterilized than men (911), the history of the eugenics program was not inherently sexist. One in six sterilizations left a man not only incapable of conceiving a child but also stopped him from having sexual relations.

Nor was the program inherently racist. More white women (2,851) were victims than black women (2,098). And more white men (675) than black men (235). Approximately 40 Native Americans (only 1 man) were sterilized, too. Admittedly, one can divide the number of blacks in the state during any given year by the number sterilized and make a different argument based on the ratios of whites and blacks. What’s interesting is that black numbers increased drastically after World War II, when they were allowed in greater numbers to receive welfare.

Everyone I’ve talked to has asked questions of race, class, and gender concerning the eugenics movement. Not bad questions, yet it seems that the elephant in the room that no one discusses is government intervention. But they should discuss it because power allows people to act on their prejudices.

One historian has stated that the eugenics program reveals state neglect. But it actually reveals the consequences of government’s excessive meddling. Government started a welfare program that had inherent flaws and tried to solve problems in it by intervening in people’s lives — in this case, actually entering bodies as a means to keep “undesirables” from having more children who might empty the purses of the welfare system.

In the new name of “social biology” and in the debates involving abortion, cloning, in-vitro fertilization, et. al., eugenics is alive today. The debate will intensify as a modern superstition in science is used solely to explain humanity and life — life is not a formula in chemistry class, but a miracle — and as Americans increasingly want government to intervene in the name of progress.

We must examine history and start asking the right questions.