8 books on the history of eugenics in the United States

This content contains affiliate links. When you purchase through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Eugenics, a process of selecting “desirable” and “undesirable” characteristics in future generations of humans, is a school of thought that has cast a long and chilling shadow over the history of the United States in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century; and although the original eugenics ideas were discredited and criticized, its effects continue to have an impact to this day. Francis Galton coined the term in 1883 and encouraged people with “desirable” traits – usually white, middle-class disabled people – to have more children and to discourage (or often actively prevent) people of color, people with disabilities and the poor. to have children.

Eugenics is most often associated with Nazi Germany, where people considered “pure Aryan” by the white supremacist government were rewarded for having large families, and Jews, Roma, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities, among others, were forcibly sterilized and murdered in the Holocaust. However, eugenics thinking was also prevalent in the United States. Famous people such as John Harvey Kellogg were avowed eugenicists, and in 1927 the forced sterilization of people with learning disabilities was ruled constitutional. While this law was overturned in the 1940s, forced sterilizations, particularly of women with disabilities, Indigenous women, and black women, continued at least until the late 1970s, and sometimes beyond.

Modern science has been criticized for adhering to eugenics ideas when considering the possibilities of gene editing processes, such as CRISPR. Disability activists have criticized government rhetoric about ‘living with COVID’, which has often ignored the needs and vulnerabilities of people with chronic illnesses or other serious health conditionsand pushed back statements that downplayed COVID deaths of people with pre-existing health conditions. It is important to understand the impact of historical eugenics thinking on the modern United States, but fortunately many authors have explored this disturbing topic. Here are some of the best in-depth looks at the history of eugenics in the United States.

Eugenic Nation: Flaws and Frontiers of Better Animal Husbandry in Modern America by Alexandra Minna Stern

In this comprehensive book, Stern explores the history of eugenics and associated racist, ableist, and bioessentialist movements in the United States, while tracing their lasting impact on the present. eugenics nation does not hesitate to reveal the horrible truth of modern eugenics (for example, the large number of forced sterilizations that took place in California until the 1980s), and also examines how progressive movements have had to deal with the legacy of eugenics in order to carry out their work.

Medical apartheid cover

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

Harriet A. Washington details the history of the eugenics movement alongside other examples of medicalized torture that have been inflicted on black people throughout US history. As Washington covers widely known examples like the Tuskegee experiment, it also dives into less reported cases, examining how institutions have exploited black bodies and how the racist pseudoscience that accompanies these examples of torture continues to impact on blacks in the modern United States. .

Coverage of American Eugenics

American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism by Nancy Ordover

Ordover’s book on the history of eugenics examines three categories of eugenics policy: forced sterilizations of poor women and women of color; anti-immigration legislation; and the medicalization of LGBTQIA+ people. Examining surviving policies and schools of thought that developed from earlier eugenics movements, such as pseudoscientific attempts to prove that different ethnic groups have different IQ levels, or to isolate a “gay gene”, Ordover shows that today’s American white supremacist and Cisheterosist thought has its roots in the eugenics movements of the early 20th century.

Cover of Killing the Black Body

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Sense of Freedom by Dorothy Roberts

Roberts’ groundbreaking book takes a close look at how black women’s fertility has been weaponized and controlled by white supremacist eugenics movements. This examines the medical and sexual exploitation of black women throughout history, from the systemic rape of enslaved black women to forced sterilization programs that targeted black women until the 1970s and, in some cases, beyond. .

Provocative birth cover

Provocative birth: women who resist medical eugenics by Melinda Tankard Reist

This collection of stories, collected and edited by Reist, shows how eugenics beliefs and policies have been used to restrict and control the reproductive autonomy of women with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Each essay tells the story of a woman who has had to fight for her right to become pregnant or continue an existing pregnancy due to her own disabilities or medical conditions, or those her future children may encounter.

Imbeciles cover

Fools: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen

Cohen’s book takes a close look at the “test case” that has been used to set legal precedent for eugenics policies against people with disabilities in the United States. An in-depth examination of the 1927 court case that sought the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, a young woman with a learning disability who was labeled by an ableist society as “weak-minded,” the book also exposes how the majority of those involved in the case, including Buck’s own legal representation, were motivated to ensure that the policies of forced sterilization could be legally upheld and enacted against people with disabilities.

Carte Blanche cover

Carte blanche: the erosion of medical consent by Harriet A. Washington

Another in-depth work by the author of medical apartheid, Flames examines the weakening of informed consent, examining loopholes that have been used by institutions such as the US military to allow experimental medical procedures to be performed on uninformed participants. Washington examines examples of armies ordering soldiers to participate in medical experiments and legal policies that allowed the use of experimental techniques on trauma patients, as well as examining the legacy of eugenics thinking, which means that these techniques are more frequently used on people. of color and people with disabilities.

Building a Better Race Cover

Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom by Wendy Kline

In this book, Kline examines the cultural history of eugenics and how eugenics thinking corresponds to moral panics and reactionary thinking about gender and sexuality. Build a better race focuses particularly on “positive eugenics” – the side of the eugenics movement that encouraged “desirable” people (usually white, middle class, disabled) to have more children, alongside ” negative eugenics”, which aimed to prevent people of color, the disabled and the poor from having children. It also focuses on the impacts of eugenics policies on everyday modern concepts such as IQ testing and genetic screening.

While these books are great starting points, it is important to remember that not everyone affected by the current impacts of eugenics thinking is easily able to have their work or stories accepted and taken seriously by publishers or mainstream media. Blogs and social media can be a great way to read the perspectives of disability activists, people of color, and others who have additional social barriers to respecting their bodily autonomy. Imani Barbarin writes to Crutches and Spice, publishing work on current affairs, pop culture, racism and ableism. The writers at Disability Visibility Projectfounded by author Alice Wong, have published extensively on ableist responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the disadvantages imposed on people with disabilities – particularly those who experience cross-marginalization, such as being POC or LGBTQI+ – by a society that marginalizes those who do not fit the able model.

For more disability rights books, try 5 Books for an Introduction to Disability History in the United States. For an overview of medical history, check out 100 Essential Books on the History of Medicine.

Colin L. Johnson