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”Eugenics” derives from the Greek word eugenes meaning ”good in birth” or ”noble in heredity.” Eugenics was developed in the late nineteenth century and means ideologies and activities aiming to improve the quality of the human race by selecting the ”genetically fit.” It can entail (1) ”positive” strategies to manipulate the heredity or breeding practices of ”genetically superior” or ”fit” people, or (2) ”negative” strategies to exterminate the ”genetically inferior.”
Eugenics combines genetics as a scientific discipline with ideas from social planning and rational management developed during the industrial revolution. Eugenic ”science” was considered to be the application of human genetic knowledge to social problems such as pauperism, alcoholism, criminality, violence, prostitution, mental illness, etc. In the early twentieth century, eugenics became a social movement first in Europe and then also in the United States. Public policies were developed which were rooted in eugenic ideology and justified on grounds of societal or state interests: those deemed ”genetically unfit” were stigmatized as an economic and moral burden. Eugenics was supported across the political spectrum. There was, however, disagreement between conservatives, progressives and leftists regarding specific policies, means and political aims (e.g. the role of coercion; social change). In general, European eugenicists were preoccupied with class issues, while the focus of eugenic policies in the USA was on racial and ethnic minorities. The most radical eugenic program was implemented by German Fascism leading to the fall of eugenics into disrepute after World War II. With the advance of new human reproductive technologies and their fusion with genetics in the 1980s, critics observe the rise of a ”new” eugenics. This modernized version is based on individual rights instead of societal interests; in liberal eugenics individuals themselves (especially prospective parents) decide on selection criteria.
- Agar, N. (2004) Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Duster, T. (1990) Backdoor to Eugenics. Routledge, New York.
- Kevles, D. J. (1985) In the Nature of Eugenics: Genetics and the Use of Human Heredity. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.