Social & Domestic Issues

It Did Happen Here

Before Nazi Germany embraced eugenics, most U.S. states did.

One state is in the midst of a debate over the proper atonement for its past sins. A second North Carolina governor has apologized to victims of its nearly half-century sterilization campaign. Governor Bev Perdue created a task force earlier this year charged with recommending compensation for those sterilized by the state’s program that began in 1929 and effectively ended in 1974. A final report is expected by February 1, 2012. But thus far, just 48 surviving victims have been identified. 

North Carolina was neither the first nor the most enthusiastic pursuer of genetic purity. Indiana sterilized first and California sterilized more. But one county within the Tar Heel state has drawn belated media interest as perhaps the most zealous practitioner of eugenics in the United States.

“I suppose,” Mecklenburg County welfare director Wallace Kuralt once explained, “no comparable population in the world has ever received more eugenic sterilizations.” It was no idle boast. Of the 430 Mecklenburg County sterilization cases examined by the Charlotte Observer, the state eugenics board rejected just six. Tellingly, African Americans, who made up just a quarter of the county’s population, constituted four-fifths of Kuralt’s sterilization cases.

The newspaper recounted that Kuralt, now famous for being the father of the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, was famous among contemporaries as being “compassionate” a “visionary,” and a “champion of women and the poor.” But the people who today regard themselves as compassionate, visionaries, and champions of women and the poor just can’t imagine their intellectual antecedents performing such injustices.

“He was a hero with women’s reproductive rights,” Dr. John Johnston, a respected North Carolina pediatrician, told the Charlotte Observer. “I would just be shocked if Wallace Kuralt were playing the game of ‘improve the stock.’”

If it’s shocking now that an advocate of so-called reproductive-rights also practiced reproductive restrictions, it was anything but in the heyday of American eugenics. In fact, legalizing abortion was seen by its advocates as an integral part of a larger eugenics crusade, which sterilized more than 60,000 Americans.

“The American public is taxed, heavily taxed, to maintain an increasing race of morons, which threatens the very foundations of our civilization,” Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger told Vassar College’s Institute of Euthenics in 1926. The birth-control crusader proposed a government pension to entice genetically inferior stock to undergo sterilization. “There is only one reply to a request for a higher birth rate among the intelligent, and that is to ask the government to first take off the burdens of the insane and feebleminded from your backs. Sterilization for these is the remedy.”

Sanger was hardly alone among progressives in advocating genetic cleansing. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Bernard Shaw, Emma Goldman, and other leftist icons of the past century vigorously supported eugenics. Edward Bellamy dreamed of it in Looking Backward and John Humphrey Noyes’s Bible Communists practiced it at Oneida.

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives,” the Supreme Court’s great liberal Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously ruled in 1927’s Buck v. Bell. “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”

So unflinching was the age’s faith in the state that it not only believed that it should decide who procreates, but that it could predict who among the unborn would not contribute to society.

Like Wallace Kuralt, Holmes, Du Bois, Goldman, and company were regarded as champions of women and the poor, too. Those unfortunate moms and paupers strapped down to hospital gurneys might disagree.

Eugenics, like prohibition, was a paternalistic progressive-era reform in which post-progressive-era progressives deny their forbears’ paternity. Eugenics pitted advanced science versus the reactionary church, interventionism versus laissez faire, and faith in the state versus skepticism of concentrated power. Where God had erred man would fix. Never do humans act so inhumanely as when they attempt to perfect humanity.

“He was very, very, very smart,” recalls one North Carolina social worker of Wallace Kuralt. “He was a forward-thinking person for that time.” But Kuralt appears very backward to our time. It makes one wonder the ways in which today’s progressives will appear regressive to posterity.

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