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Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

What do you know about Eugenics?

Asked by Pied_Pfeffer (27381points) March 21st, 2015

A friend recently shared this article about the practice of Eugenics in our US home state of Virginia. It came as a shock to all of those who read it, despite living there while it was taking place.

Va. wasn’t the only state; 33 US states participated in sterilizations. This started as early as 1925, shortly before Nazi Germany rose to power.

The Wikipedia article on Eugenics is chilling. It points out that even abortions are a form of Eugenics.

Am I the only one who was unaware of its history and assumed that this was some crazy plot created by Adolf Hitler?

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40 Answers

rojo's avatar

It has been some time but I remember hearing about, then reading about it over thirty years ago. Among other things, it was used as a reason for maintaining racial purity if I recall correctly.

JLeslie's avatar

Since I was very young I heard about sterilization of the mentally ill. More recently, about 10 to 15 years ago, I learned about people being sterilized without their knowledge or consent just because they basically were black and poor. Or, that’s how it seems to me from hearing the stories. These stories remind me of the times of lobotomies too. If you have ever seen interviews with the people who were sterilized it breaks your heart. One woman I saw had delivered a baby and then they tied her tubes without her knowing. I guess they probably did that to a lot of women.

I would be surprised to find out that you didn’t know there were laws against people of different races getting married. That is brought up a lot during the gay marriage discussion in the last 10 years.

In a way large parts of society seek to alter or improve on natural selection, or what would occur naturally if there was no interference. I read a while back that 90% of Down’s Syndrome fetuses are aborted. We are researching how to change DNA to have healthier babies. We can take genetic material out of an embryo being grown for IVF and discard the embryos that might have certain genetic diseases, or select only girls if the disease is more likely in boys, etc.

I guess it matters partly where you draw the line at human life. Is it in utero? Once a baby is born? The Nazis killed adults, children, babies, people who were well aware and had a will to live, and then took surviving family members and enslaved and imprisoned them. This to me is not the same as aborting a fetus or being selective with an embryo.

Sterilizing men and women without their knowledge is horrific to me, although I can see it in extreme circumstances maybe. I don’t know, it’s very upsetting to me, I’d have to really think about it. Nature sterilizes some people with genetic diseases. Certain genetic “mishaps” result in the person having very low sperm rates or other problems. Down’s Syndrome is one. Men with CF also can have very reduced sperm
counts. So nature in a way performs it’s own eugenics sometimes.

I have to admit that when I see a family that has 2 or more children with CF I don’t understand it. Why do that to a person? Such a horrible disease.

One big problem in my mind is who decides? Who decides what traits are ok or not? I’m not ok with the government doing it, or a doctor deciding. It would have to be only the individuals. The parents.

One very tricky problem is some babies born with generic diseases, or born very premie, need extensive medical help and have a high likelihood, if not definite, of having disabilities. Who decides whether to let that baby die or take extreme measures? Courts have ordered medical help when parents wanted to let the baby go.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

I have been aware of eugenics for a long time. Like @JLeslie, I was aware of the connection between eugenics and mental illness. People were placed in mental institutions, were steralised and were never allowed to leave. I saw a documentary about this subject a while ago. It was harrowing but I can’t remember the title now.

jerv's avatar

Quite a bit. However, you are not alone in your lack of awareness.

Eugenics has been practiced for thousands of years in one form or another, but it takes many forms and not all of them are bad. For instance, most would agree that the birth defects caused by inbreeding are a legitimate reason for the government to ban incest.

However, Eugenics is usually more about getting rid of those that society and/or the government don’t like. It may be those of below-average IQ, those with skin darker than a paper bag, those of a particular religion, or something else, but the fundamental driving force behind that type of eugenics is generally pure discrimination.

Those who understand genetics well enough understand that heredity is fickle and mutation is possible, limiting the effectiveness of such breeding programs.

@JLeslie “I have to admit that when I see a family that has 2 or more children with CF I don’t understand it. Why do that to a person? Such a horrible disease.”

Well, this might explain it, and also why eugenics is a bit silly, but lets explain that link… hopefully without getting too deep into how Mendellian heredity really works. Basically, if either parent lacks the recessive gene for CF, there is practically zero chance of them having a child with CF; barring mutation or other outside interference, the child would not have it in their genes period. So now that we’ve established that getting CF practically requires both parents to have the gene, lets look at the possible outcomes;
– There is a 1-in-4 chance that both genes will activate and give the child CF.
– There is a 1-in-4 chance that neither gene will activate and the child will have no CF gene to pass on.
– There is a 2-in-4 chance that one genes will activate while the other doesn’t, resulting in a child that doesn’t have CF but does have the recessive gene to possibly hand down to future generations.

With only a 1-in-4 chance of being afflicted, those odds aren’t terrible. And since there were two children, the odds are actually 1-in-(4*4) or 1-in-16 of having two kids with CF.

Of course, the actual truth is a bit more complex due to things like cross-dominance and outside interference, but my point still stands; just because one child has genetic defects, that does not automatically mean that all of their siblings will have the same issue. Most of the autistic people I know have neurotypical siblings; same with Downs Syndrome.

So, if the odds are that everything will be okay, and if it isn’t then lightning probably won’t strike twice, is it really all that horrible to take a chance and have a couple of kids? Regardless, does it at least make a little more sense why someone would?

JLeslie's avatar

@jerv I didn’t read your link, but I know how CF works. Down’s Syndrome and autism are nothing like the chances to have another CF child. CF, as you point out, has a 1 in 4 chance once one baby is born with it. Then the parents know they are both recessive. I’m assuming for this both parents don’t have CF, just the recessive gene. There is not a 1 in 4 chance a second baby will have Down’s or autism.

I saw once on America’s got talent contestants who were two sisters, young girls, and they explained they both had CF, and their two other siblings also. They spend their life in and out of hospitals, on daily antibiotics, and need lung transplants eventually. Sorry it sounds very difficult to me. It also is extremely expensive for society, but I hate to even bring that up, because I am not sure if I care about the expense, it’s just a fact, unless the family actually pays for all the medical bills.

JLeslie's avatar

@jerv I want to say that not everything is equal. I have a gay friend who became extremely upset for a long time when he found out his brother gave up a Down’s Syndrome child. He identified with the baby as being another person outside of what is considered “normal.” He wondered if it had been evident he was gay before birth, or at birth, if he would have been discarded.

Suffering with CF or Tay-Sachs is not the same as being on the autism spectrum. Not in my mind. Plus, I’m not judging parents who take the risk. Everything can be seemingly perfect and we can still have illness. We can’t control it all. We also don’t know it all. My gene pool has cholesterol problems, heart disease, color blindness, and colon cancer. My husband’s has thallessemia and diabetes. If we had a baby my child would have a pretty high chance of thallessemia, and if I had one boy who was color blind, a second boy would have a 50/50 chance of it. Those would not stop me from having a baby. CF would. I would abort.

elbanditoroso's avatar

Please, this isn’t new. This went on in ancient Rome and Greece (and probably other ancient civilizations as well).

The surprising thing is that it was prevalent in the early years of this country, and of course in germany during the Nazi era.

But breeding humans for results .. that goes back thousands of years.

ucme's avatar

Sweet dreams are made of these…

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I remember articles written in the early 2000’s about compulsory sterilization of black female prisoners and single black female welfare cases deemed by the courts to have too many children in one of the Carolinas. Supposedly this has been stopped.

California was practicing compulsory sterilization of women up until last year:

148 female prisoners in two California institutions were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 in a supposedly voluntary program involving the suppression of women of closer equal status in personal assertion capacity to men, but voluntary consent can not be given while under duress.[68] In September 2014, California enacted Bill SB 1135 that bans sterilization in correctional facilities, unless the procedure shall be required in a medical emergency to preserve inmate’s life.[69]
~Source: Wikipedia

It is quite common in many states that a man on trial for lack of paying child support for multiple children with multiple women is required to have a vasectomy as a requirement for settling his case.

JLeslie's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus I didn’t know about the courts requiring men to get a vasectomy to settle. I don’t consider that Eugenics, do you? That might be a Q all on it’s own. That is a matter of money and responsibility. Although, some of the sterilization done back in the day had to do with poverty as a rationale to sterilize women without their consent.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@jerv “With only a 1-in-4 chance of being afflicted, those odds aren’t terrible. And since there were two children, the odds are actually 1-in-(4*4) or 1-in-16 of having two kids with CF.”

This is not really true. While we can create an “expected ratio” of CF to non-CF children who should be a product of this union, the reality is that a 1 in 4 ratio applies equally to each pregnancy. All the same genes get tossed into the cup to be shaken around for the next roll. It’s not a process of elimination.

The number of children one couple has in their lifetime is normally very small – so I wouldn’t take any chances based on the expected ratio. That’s even assuming that one thinks it’s a great outcome for half their children to be carriers.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@JLeslie No. The last paragraph is not eugenics as it doesn’t attempt to engineer the genetic make up of society through filtering out a specific genetic characteristic or characteristics (unless irresponsible reproductive behavior can be traced to a specific gene or genes). I only threw the last paragraph in as an example of compulsive sterilization (which has been one of the more repulsive aspects of many eugenics programs) that may be beneficial to society: the restriction of reproduction rights to irresponsible individuals unable to financially support their numerous offspring (But it must be said here that an overwhelmingly number of these men forced into vasectomies by the courts do come from the lower economic echelons of our society). My intent is that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as we usually do in this most zealous society.

talljasperman's avatar

The Kawn soong from Botany Bay… is most that I know of eugenics.

Dutchess_III's avatar

This is a hell of a good question.

JLeslie's avatar

Edit: I already know my boys have a 50/50 chance of being color blind, I don’t even need to have the first one. My dad is color blind, so I definitely carry the trait.

Unless he isn’t really my bio-dad like my sister always tells me. Lol.

jerv's avatar

@JLeslie “Down’s Syndrome and autism are nothing like the chances to have another CF child. ”
I never said they were, and aside from the fact that both can be handed down genetically, I don’t think they are. In fact, that is why I chose CF; the odds are a bit easier to figure out as autosomnal recessive genetic disorders more closely follows the 1:2:1 rule than many other hereditary traits, making for a better example than, say, Red-green color blindness (X-linked recessive) or autism (genetics still unknown). It was simply for the sake of illustrating how 1:2:1 works.

“He wondered if it had been evident he was gay before birth, or at birth, if he would have been discarded.”
With genetic screening starting to be a thing, that is a totally valid concern. And considering how many people would rather have sons than daughters, I think we really need to draw the line at what is/isn’t considered an acceptable reason for aborting a kid. At least nowadays abortion is more common than infanticide though.

@dappled_leaves “All the same genes get tossed into the cup to be shaken around for the next roll. It’s not a process of elimination.”
Anyone familiar with The Monte Carlo fallacy knows that the odds are the same for each toss no matter how many times you roll or what the previous rolls were. CF seems to follow that rule.
I stand by my assertion that the odds of having two children that both have CF (getting the same die roll twice) are about 1-in-16, meaning that the parents were a bit unlucky. If they went for a third try, the odds of that child having CF would still be 1-in-4 even though the odds of getting the same result three times in a row are 1-in-64 ( 1-in-(4^3) ). Probability is funny that way. And that family that @JLeslie mentioned was really unlucky to have 4 kids with CF, but it’s not like 1-in-256 odds are anywhere near impossible.
While some people may not like those odds, there are some that feel differently; different people have different levels of risk aversion.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@jerv It’s not about liking the odds. Open any genetics textbook, and it will tell you that the probability of a trait being inherited in the next offspring is independent of the trait having been inherited in previous offspring.

See this, from NIH

Or just google the question. There are any number of cheat sheets / study aids out there that explain this.

jerv's avatar

@dappled_leaves I think there is a minor miscommunication here. Did you miss where I said, “Anyone familiar with The Monte Carlo fallacy knows that the odds are the same for each toss no matter how many times you roll or what the previous rolls were.”?

dappled_leaves's avatar

@jerv I didn’t miss it. I figured you couldn’t have been taking it seriously, because you then said, “I stand by my assertion that the odds of having two children that both have CF are bout 1-in-16.”

Maybe you missed your own point. The odds are 1 in 4 for each child, regardless of how many children they have.

jerv's avatar

@dappled_leaves Ah, I see. Well, a coin-toss is a 50/50 chance, so what are the odds of getting heads twice in a row? 1-in-(2^2) even though the odds of it coming up heads on any particular single toss are 1-in-2. That is why I also said ”Probability is funny that way.”.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@jerv I’m not going to continue to argue this. The events are independent. This is not a “two in a row” scenario.

This conversation grows less funny by the moment.

jerv's avatar

@dappled_leaves Argue? Who’s arguing? You don’t see the ironic humor in statistical independence that I do, and it seems that my attempts to help you see what I am laughing at are only making you think I know nothing about statistics and probability by claiming I have an opinion that, in fact, I do not hold. Had I known I would be misunderstood to the point where clarification only got words shoved into my mouth, I would never have posted even the original answer.
This has gone on too long, and I feel trying to explain myself to you will only turn a misunderstanding into a fight if it continues, so for the sake of peace and trying to get this thread back on-topic I will settle for no longer trying to get you to see the joke and walk away.

JLeslie's avatar

@jerv As you know women can abort at will in America if it’s early enough in the pregnancy. One of the biggest problems with genetic testing on a fetus is it is done rather late. CVS can be done reasonably early, I think as early as ten weeks, but it doesn’t test for as many things as amnio and carries more risk of miscarriage.

Things like CF and many other genetic diseases couples can rule out before they ever get pregnant if they want.

jerv's avatar

@JLeslie But how do we define “genetic disease”? As one who is who is neither blue-eyed or blond, some may consider me “genetically diseased” on that basis alone. How many geniuses would be killed because the test popped for Autism? What of highly patriarchal societies; would they die out in a couple generations due to lack of female children?

Where do we draw the line? What standards can we agree on? That has historically been why most eugenics programs are considered, at least by 2015 American standards, to be barbaric at best. Oddly, we consider it a mark of pride to practice eugenics with dogs and race horses though.

JLeslie's avatar

@jerv Like I said, for now, I leave it up to the parents. Legally, it’s actually up to the pregnant woman if she is already pregnant. If it is an embryo outside of the woman then the father can have some rights depending on how the couple set it up.

I don’t think we can get caught up in the terminology too much. Is Down a Syndrome a genetic disease? I don’t think of it that way. It’s a mishap to me. It isn’t passed down like blue eyes or Sickle Cell Anemia. Are blue eyes a disease? I think everyone would say no. I guess it simply is a matter of what we can detect before a baby is born either through genetic testing or ultra sound, and if the parents are ok with it.

I think the majority of people want their own genetic children and are willing to take some if the “negative” possibilities. I also think most people don’t want their children to suffer greatly, and also to some extent at least some people think of themselves and what they are willing to deal with.

I think most people want children who look similar to themselves and their family. Certain features might trend, but I think there will still always be a big variety of skin color and hair color and eye color.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@JLeslie “Is Down a Syndrome a genetic disease? I don’t think of it that way. It’s a mishap to me. It isn’t passed down like blue eyes or Sickle Cell Anemia.”

It’s an interesting question. Yes, all of them are considered “genetic disorders” or “genetic diseases” (recall the murky and broad definition of the word “disease”) and are the result of a “mishap” in a gene or genes. But I think many people would see them as qualitatively different because something like Down’s Syndrome is caused by an accident during meiosis, while something like cystic fibrosis lurks in the genome for generations.

Darth_Algar's avatar

Am I the only one who did not have difficulty understanding @jerv‘s point? To put it another way – take a standard 6-sided die. Yes, on each roll your odds of rolling a 6 remain 1-in-6, but your odds of continuing to roll straight 6’s do not remain 1-in-6. Your odds of continuing to roll straight 6’s increase substantially with each successive roll.

jerv's avatar

@JLeslie That is how it is in 2015 America… well, except where it’s different. The mother’s decision may be made for her by indirect action from legislature that “accidentally” makes it illegal even though it’s technically legal. (~Not that any state would ever do such a thing.) Legally, it’s up to whoever makes the laws, and if they want to find an end-run around the letter of higher laws in order to twist it to their liking, they can… or they can just change the higher laws if they can get control of Congress and/or the Supreme Court.

And that is the problem right there. You say we can’t get caught up in the terminology too much. What are laws? Why do we have lawyers? Laws are all about terminology. Unless we are to let everybody do whatever the hell they want, we must get caught up in terminology. The ones making the laws and advising those lawmakers have to get really into the terminology, but if you want to be governed by people whose beliefs are in-line with your own, then you must get caught up in the terminology at least enough to be an informed voter.

If you think some of the things we’ve already done so far (infanticides, forced sterilizations, enslaving other humans because ”Insert minority here aren’t people!”, etcetera) are horrific, you haven’t seen anything yet. Biotechnology is offering us new and creative ways to get truly depraved. We haven’t even had the law catch up to the issues that widespread adoption of personal computers hooked to a worldwide information-sharing network that has been around for years, so how will we handle someone growing a lobotomized clone (gender swapped for a nominal surcharge) and having sex with the decerebrate shell when that technology hits? While I feel that there are some people that should go fuck themselves, I also feel that it’s one of those things that should be addressed by law while it’s still a theoretical. And the fact that there are people who do things far more twisted than I have the creativity to imagine highlights the importance of considering those issues now.

No matter what you think should or shouldn’t be a legitimate reason to “clean the gene pool”, there is no escaping the fact that genetic engineering is at a point where we all are going to have to give some serious thought to issues, preferably while they are still theoretical rather than after they’ve been common practice for decades.

JLeslie's avatar

@Darth_Algar The stats for something like that smooth out when you can roll the dice many many times. Most people have 2–3 children. You aren’t rolling those dice often enough to make the formula pan out. Like if you flip a penny, flip it 100 times and you will get almost a 50/50 ratio of heads and tails. Flip it just 10 times and you might easily get just 2 heads and 8 tails.

JLeslie's avatar

@jerv I am not talking about my opinion if what should clean the gene pool, I am only talking about how I would feel about some genetic diseases for my own kids. I’m not trying to make any laws against parents who want to have babies likely to have CF. I certainly would not force a woman to do any testing for the disease on her fetus.

I do agree there are people who try to make laws to stop women from aborting, and also eventually there will probably be someone trying to make laws to prevent children being born with certain diseases. The law is almost always behind the technology. I think it is good to have the discussions about the up and coming technology before it is actually in use.

I feel like you might be thinking that I walk around thinking, why was that child allowed to be born? Or, saved? Mostly, when I meet or see a person that is obviously outside of “normal” I just think of them as another human being.

jerv's avatar

@Darth_Algar And that was a fatal flaw in the die-rolling mechanics of the first three editions of Shadowrun.

Darth_Algar's avatar


Nevertheless your odds against your continuing to roll the same number increase with each successive roll.

Yeah, I realize that genetics are a bit more complicated than a simple die roll, but most people probably figure (if they figure at all) what are the chances they’ll roll 6 (as it were) three or four times straight.

dappled_leaves's avatar

I guess this is why so many people fail Genetics.

rojo's avatar

Eugenics is that guy in Walking Dead who has the mullet. He is smart but socially awkward. He convinced several people he was a scientist who could fix things if they could only get him to DC. kinda like Ted Cruz

jerv's avatar

@dappled_leaves Not everybody has taken Statistics; many stopped learning math at around the Algebra II level unless they had a need to for their college major. If one lacks the academic knowledge handle the seemingly paradoxical nature of The Monte Carlo Fallacy of the odds of each individual occurrence being independent while the odds of a particular sequence continuing diminish, something that is fairly basic as far as Statistics goes, then I can see how one would have difficulty understanding far stranger things like genetic codominance as it applies to Mendellian Heredity.

In fact, Statistics is generally considered a prerequisite for Genetics at most schools; without that advanced math (which comes after Pre-calculus, putting it at least two steps beyond where most people stop), how can one understand things like autosomnal recessive genes or project their effects over the course of X generations? Is it really any wonder how people who never took any classes on genetics at all (except possibly high-school Biology, which is basically a bullet-point summary of the introduction to Genetics) would have difficulty? Tell me, how well do you know things that you not only were never taught, but never even learned the prerequisites for the prerequisites?

To my mind, there ‘s no guessing; I can say with absolute certainty that Genetics is a tough thing to understand. Yet even as cynical as I often am, I see no shame in having only the barest understanding of such a complex subject. Besides, you don’t need a degree in something to understand it well enough to just be an informed voter, and you don’t need any education at all to be concerned about the future.

In fact, this is a rare case where I think a little ignorance is good as it allows the imagination to cover things that seem imaginary/theoretical now but may become fact in a few years. And given some of the messed up things humanity has done already, I think that we need a bit of imagination when it comes to figuring out what we do/don’t want to allow.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@jerv Imagination is a fine thing. But watching your “joke” rack up lurve in opposition to the person who actually teaches biology and statistics makes me wonder whose answer will carry more weight with someone who is actually interested in learning something about genetics. This is one reason that sites like Fluther are a terrible resource for beginners. It’s also why students who whip out a phone and go to Yahoo Answers while studying fail their midterms.

JLeslie's avatar

I took two semesters college level statistics. Each time a baby is made it is an independent crap shoot of 1 in 4 for CF if both parents are carriers. That family with 4 kids certainly did get very unlucky considering each throw of the dice there was more chance a child would not have CF. 1 in 4 is a very high risk for taking a chance though. People hear 1 in 8 women get breast cancer and everyone is up in arms. 1 in 3 get heart disease. What’s the stat now for autism spectrum? 1 in 90???

Darth_Algar's avatar

If you’re turning to something like Fluther or Yahoo Answers to learn about genetics then you deserve to fail your class.

jerv's avatar

Some may consider 1-in-4 a very high risk, some may consider it acceptable. Opinions vary.

The stats on ASDs are debatable as not all agree on diagnostic criteria, and recent changes to DSM V don’t make things any clearer. I’d say 1-in-90 is a close enough number to use for the sake of avoiding a Clinton-esque, “It depends on your definition of ‘is’ is.” song and dance.

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