The eugenics movement emerged in the late 19th century, promoting the theory that the human race could be improved by the selection of desirable heritable characteristics. The term was coined by Francis Galton in 1883 and the idea was initially embraced in Britain and the United States by philosophers, scientists and politicians who viewed it as a beacon of hope for a better, healthier and stronger society. But like so many before and after them, ideas of improving humanity also came with ideas about needing to rid society of those deemed ‘inferior’. And after just a few decades the adoption of eugenics led to the horrors of the holocaust and Nazi race science.
According to novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez it is important to understand the full history of eugenics and we must not be deceived into thinking that it started or ended with the Third Reich. The Nazis learned from eugenicists in the United States who were forcibly sterilising women, particularly Black women, whom they deemed ‘unfit to procreate.’ In Canada there is a long history of forced sterilisations of First Nations women, occurring allegedly right up to 2018. And in China there are credible reports that up to 80% of Uyghur women detained in Xinjiang have been sterilised by surgery or IUD.
Add to this the emergence of new gene-editing technologies like CRISPR that can edit human genes in the embryo and it’s clear that the risk of meddling with our genetic inheritance is ever present. We were joined by Perkins-Valdez in May 2023 as she drew on the themes of her new book and discuss the dark history of eugenics.