NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Faith in Eugenics

April 23, 2004

During the early 20th century, American reformers took to the idea of eugenics, based on the premise that the world would be a better place if the "feebleminded" were not allowed to procreate, thus eliminating unfavorable genes from the human race.

In her book, "Preaching Eugenics," author Christine Rosen discusses the history of eugenics in the United States, and the prominent role some religious leaders played in shaping it:

  • The first state law to enforce eugenics was passed in Indiana in 1907, "to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists."
  • Twenty years later, The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a mandatory sterilization law in Virginia.
  • Thirty states had sterilization laws at one point, which affected about 60,000 U.S. citizens.

Besides scientists, many of the reformers behind eugenics were liberal Protestants and reformed Jews, including: Rabbi Stephen Wise of the Free Synagogue of New York, and Baptist preacher Russell Conwell. The conservative religious leaders who opposed eugenics were often drowned out by those who embraced the idea before examining it in light of theology, says Rosen.

It was not until the 1930s, when Pope Pius XI denounced eugenics, that the tide begin to turn, and neo-Protestant leaders warned of the consequences of social reform. In fact, in recent years, several state governors have come forward to apologize for secret sterilization programs from earlier decades.

Boston University's Stephen Prothero notes that Rosen's book will make readers think about the importance of today's religious leaders addressing the ethics of biotechnology and genomics.

Source: Stephen Prothero, "Bad Science, Misplaced Faith," Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2004, based on the book by Christine Rosen, "Preaching Eugenics," Oxford University Press, March 2004.


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