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Positive And Negative Eugenics

Galton identified positive and negative eugenics as the two basic methods to improve humanity. Positive eugenics used education, tax incentives, and childbirth stipends to encourage procreation among fit people. Education would convince fit parents to have more children, out of a desire to increase the common good. Lower taxes on larger families and the provision of a small birth payment for each "eugenic" child would provide further inducements. Conversely, eugenically educated but unfit people would selflessly forgo procreation, to prevent the propagation of their hereditary "taint." Believing that neither altruism nor self-interest would be enough to control the unfit, however, many eugenicists also advocated negative eugenics.

Negative eugenics sought to limit procreation through marriage restriction, segregation, sexual sterilization, and, in its most extreme form, euthanasia. In an attempt to decrease procreation among the "unfit," laws prohibited marriage to people with diseases, or other conditions believed to be hereditary. Similar restrictions banned marriage between people of different races, in order to prevent miscegenation. Popular in the United States, antimiscegenation laws sought to use science to legitimize racial prejudice. Since marriage restriction failed to stop extramarital procreation, eugenicists argued for more intrusive interventions.

Many of these more intrusive interventions relied upon segregation. For example, individuals judged unfit might be segregated in institutions such as insane asylums, tuberculosis sanatoriums, and homes for the so-called feebleminded or mentally retarded. Isolated from "normal" society, these people were also segregated by sex within the institution to prevent procreation. Segregation through incarceration, however, proved too costly to be applied to all but the most severely handicapped.

Compulsory sexual sterilization of those individuals deemed "feeble-minded" or "slow" promised eugenic and economic benefits for society. Once sterilized, such individuals posed no eugenic risk; sexual intercourse would never result in pregnancy. Sterilized individuals could therefore return to society and work, rather than remaining an economic "burden" in an institution. Many social reformers argued that compulsory sterilization was more humane than locking people away during their childbearing years.

In the case of individuals afflicted with gross physical or mental abnormalities, the most radical eugenic intervention was proposed: euthanasia. While many eugenicists theorized about euthanasia, very few seriously considered it as a real possibility. This would change with the advent of Nazi eugenics in Germany.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaGenetics in Medicine - Part 2Eugenics - British Origins, Positive And Negative Eugenics, Mendelian Inheritance, Intelligence Testing, And American Eugenics