Eugenics Past and Present

Remembering Buck v. Bell

“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes


Michael J. Berson and Bárbara Cruz

At the end of the nineteenth century, as Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution were making their way to all levels of society, scientists and the general public began to consider how selective breeding could improve a species’s chance of survival. The theories were applied to the human species as well. A number of selective breeding enthusiasts asked: to eliminate undesirable characteristics in humans, should some people be considered so “defective” or “inferior” that they should not be allowed to reproduce?

Out of this climate the eugenics movement grew. First coined by Sir Francis Galton, the term is derived from the Greek word meaning well-born or good in birth. Galton, a cousin of Darwin, incorporated the Darwinian idea of survival of the fittest into his notion of eugenics. The goal of eugenics was the improvement of the human species through the careful selection of parents. Galton identified two primary processes to achieve this end. Positive eugenics encouraged individuals who were above average both mentally and physically to produce more offspring. Negative eugenics proposed that individuals who were below average should have fewer or no children. This second proposal could be achieved through institutional segregation, marriage restrictions, or sterilization.

Who were the early eugenicists? Some scholars believe that they were well intentioned and progressive, concerned with bettering humanity.1 After all, this was the Progressive Era, a time of hope and reform. Gerald Grob points out that eugenics advocates were persuaded that they were acting on behalf of a noble cause that would benefit humanity. They believed that medical and scientific knowledge, combined with a new technology, had reached a point in time in which the eradication of inherited defects was possible.2

Despite these idealistic beginnings, the eugenics movement had devastating—and in some cases lasting—worldwide effects. The most obvious and extreme example is the use of eugenics in Nazi Germany. Other, perhaps less known, practices include those in Great Britain, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Austria, Brazil, Japan, Canada, and China. The movement had substantial support in the United States as well, from citizen and charity groups, politicians, physicians, scientists, and mental health professionals. Proposed policies ranged from segregation laws to marriage prohibitions to immigration restrictions to sterilization, culminating in the Supreme Court case of Buck v. Bell.

The upcoming seventy-fifth anniversary of this momentous legal case presents an occasion to introduce students to the history of eugenics, its practice in the United States and throughout the world, and its lasting legacy. Although the topic is tempting to ignore, instructors should welcome the opportunity to familiarize students with a movement that reminds us that our quest for improvement can never be divorced from ethical questions underlying those ideals.


Eugenics in the United States

The U.S. eugenics movement was most active between the 1870s and World War I. In addition to Darwin’s and Galton’s influences, the movement benefited from the 1877 publication of Richard Dugdale’s study examining the criminality, insanity, and poverty of a family nicknamed “the Jukes.” While interviewing prisoners during an inspection of a jail, Dugdale realized that six prisoners were related. He eventually tracked down 709 relatives who were related, either by marriage or by blood, through five generations. Although Dugdale’s study stressed that the Jukes’s misfortune could be blamed as much on environmental factors as on heredity, it facilitated inaccurate beliefs that behaviors are genetically inherited. Many people concluded that crime, poverty, and disease were both innate and closely associated with sexual promiscuity, mental illness, and idiocy.3 At the time, scholars overlooked the fact that Dugdale’s findings included only one case of mental retardation out of 709 subjects.

During the years following the study, eugenicists offered a variety of solutions for what they saw as the problems of inherited criminality, harlotry, mental retardation, and feeblemindedness. One solution was the institutional internment and segregation of people with cognitive or emotional impairments. Another was the prohibition of marriage between people with developmental delays or social maladjustments. In 1895, Connecticut became the first state to ban marriage between “defective” persons. Eventually, forty-one other states ratified comparable legislation. But the marriage laws proved difficult to enforce, and eugenicists turned to other, more drastic measures.4

The medical profession introduced new possibilities for eradicating “the problem.” Eugenicists had already touted castration as a means of protecting institutionalized patients from the evils of sexual promiscuity and ensuring that they had no offspring.5 In 1897, the first reported vasectomy in the United States offered a seemingly less extreme method of sterilization. Five years after its first use to treat prostatitis, a surgeon publicized the procedure as a type of eugenic sterilization. His patients felt and behaved better as a result of the surgery, he reported—an assertion that proponents used for the next forty years.6

Armed with seemingly scientific and medical explanations, eugenicists wanted to make sterilization legal. By 1910, genetic statutes had been enacted in Washington, California, and Connecticut, and by the end of the 1920s, twenty-four states had passed involuntary sterilization laws.7 A major force behind this increase in eugenics legislation was Harry Laughlin, superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). In 1922, Laughlin authored a model sterilization law that became the prototype for similar laws enacted in the United States. By January 1935, approximately 20,000 involuntary eugenic sterilizations had been performed in the United States, half of which were conducted in California.8

What was the public’s response? For his service to eugenics and his efforts to cleanse humanity of defective genes, Laughlin received an honorary doctoral degree from Heidelberg University in Nazi Germany in 1936. Other supporters of eugenics included John D. Rockefeller, Winston Churchill, Edward Thorndike, Alexander Graham Bell, G. Stanley Hall, George Bernard Shaw, John H. Kellogg, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, Margaret Sanger, and Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt once admonished, “Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty, of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world.”9

Another major motivation for eugenics was the heavy immigration—and its attendant xenophia—that the United States experienced around the turn of the century. Many psychiatrists warned that if better medical inspections of immigrants were not performed, the consequences would be deportation or sterilization. Eugenicists’ testimony before Congress helped pass the exclusionary 1924 Immigration Act. The economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, with its high unemployment and poverty rates, further contributed to the public’s tolerance for eugenic sterilization.

The eugenicists were anxious to see how the statutes would hold up legally and constitutionally at the federal level. In effect, supporters welcomed Buck v. Bell as a test case to legitimize the position once and for all. When the superintendent of Virginia’s State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded Persons challenged the Virginia sterilization statute, the practice was finally brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Buck v. Bell, would have far-reaching implications for public opinion and social policy.


Buck v. Bell

In April 1927, the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, heard testimony on Buck v. Bell. The appeal involved Carrie Buck, a young woman who, at seventeen, was deemed a “moral imbecile” and was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded Persons. The state argued that Buck was the daughter of a “feebleminded” mother in the same institution and the mother of a seven-month-old child of subnormal intelligence. Although Harry Laughlin never examined the Buck family for the original court case, he summarized the state’s position: “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”10

Smith and Nelson’s 1989 book The Sterilization of Carrie Buck provides a fascinating and tragic account of Carrie Buck’s story. At age three, Carrie was taken away from her biological mother, Emma Buck, who was interned in the colony in 1920. Carrie progressed normally in school and was recommended for promotion by her last teacher. But her adoptive family, the Dobbs, treated Carrie differently than their own children, burdening her with extra chores and requiring her to do housework for other families. During one of the family’s out-of-town trips, Carrie was raped by one of the Dobbs’s nephews.

When Carrie told her adoptive parents, the Dobbs blamed her. Once they discovered that Carrie was pregnant, they wanted to rid themselves of her to protect their family’s reputation. In 1923, the family asked a local court to certify her “feebleminded” and to have her admitted to the same institution as her mother. Despite unconvincing and conflicting testimony from the Dobbs, the judge ruled that Carrie was a suitable candidate for the colony. In 1924, after the birth of her own child, seventeen-year-old Carrie was admitted. Carrie’s baby was taken in by the Dobbs family.

The colony’s superintendent, Albert Priddy—a medical doctor who performed dozens of legally questionable eugenic sterilizations—insisted that Carrie needed sterilization or she would have to be confined “both for her protection and the protection of society . . . until her childbearing age [was] past.”11 Priddy’s top priority was to sterilize “feebleminded” women who could work outside the colony.12

As in other states, Virginia had enacted a law that allowed the sterilization of individuals who were thought to carry defective genes. The law was approved on March 20, 1924, and was cited later in Buck v. Bell:

The health of the patient and the welfare of society may be promoted in certain cases by sterilization of mental defectives under careful safeguards, act; that sterilization may be effected in males by vasectomy and females by salpingectomy, without serious pain or substantial danger to life; the commonwealth is supporting in various institutions many defective persons who if now discharged would become a menace but if incapable of procreating might be discharged with safety and self-supporting with benefit to themselves and society; and the experience has shown that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, imbecility.13

Under this law, the colony proposed that it was in the best interest of the patient and society that Carrie be sexually sterilized because she had a hereditary form of feeblemindedness.

Carrie’s attorney argued that in no case could involuntary sterilization be justified. In addition, the attorney said that the Virginia statute violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that sterilization was cruel and unusual punishment. Unfortunately for Carrie, her defense attorney, Irving Whitehead, was a eugenics supporter and board member of the colony.14 Legal scholars are certain that Whitehead conspired with his opponents and that his “suspiciously weak defense” failed to provide a suitable challenge to the statute.15

Of the nine-member court, only one judge dissented. On May 2, 1927, the eighty-six-year-old Justice Holmes delivered the majority opinion of the court, upholding the public welfare over the rights of individuals:

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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover the Fallopian tubes [Jacobsen v. Massachusetts 197 U.S. 11]. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.16

Thus, the court found that the statute did not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Holmes also noted that sterilization could not be considered cruel and unusual punishment because it was not a punishment; it was a means to help Carrie Buck return to the community. Consequently, Carrie Buck was sterilized by Dr. Bell for the “good of herself” and society in October 1927.17 Carrie’s sister, also institutionalized, was later brought into the hospital for appendicitis and was sterilized.


From Virginia to Germany

Naturally, eugenicists rejoiced at the outcome of Buck v. Bell. The judgment prompted other states to pass and enact sterilization laws of their own, initiating a tenfold increase in the number of annual involuntary sterilizations.18 More than 27,000 sterilizations were performed within ten years of the verdict.19 In fact, some scholars believe that up to 100,000 Americans may have been forcibly sterilized.20 Curiously, the Buck v. Bell decision did not seem to attract much attention from the general public and received only cursory treatment in the press.21

But the case was followed closely overseas by a country eager to institute a national policy of eugenics: Nazi Germany. Adopted in 1933, the Eugenic Sterilization Law sanctioned the involuntary sterilization of German citizens who possessed hereditary afflictions (such as blindness), epilepsy, mental illnesses (such as schizophrenia), and physical handicaps. The edict was based on and even borrowed language from Laughlin’s prototype sterilization law. Within one year, more than 56,000 Germans had been deemed “defective” and were sterilized;22 throughout the 1930s, the Reich sterilized some 450,000 people.23 Although the legislation began with involuntary sterilization and segregation, it eventually included euthanasia. The policy soon targeted Jews and other “undesirables,” escalating into genocide and the Holocaust.

As the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps were publicized and entered into the public consciousness, eugenics in the United States began to fall into disfavor. Critics argued that such social ills as poverty, prostitution, and homelessness were not genetically determined but were the result of dire economic and social conditions. Therefore, eugenic sterilization was not only unjust, it was also ineffective.


Modern-Day Movements

Although the simple view of human inheritance has been displaced by a more comprehensive understanding of genetics, people continue to link specific genes to particular human traits and behaviors. Recent studies have attempted to link a number of human characteristics—ranging from alcoholism to homosexuality to aggression to criminality—to genetic markers. But linking complex human traits and behaviors to genetics and heredity is not only erroneous, it can also be dangerous.

The publication of Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve in 1994 renewed the debate linking intelligence with ethnicity and social class. The book’s central thesis proposed that the significant disparity in intelligence among different ethnic groups could not be eliminated by government programs or legislation intended to improve and equalize economic, social, and educational opportunities.24 Most experts immediately condemned this misguided thinking, but the book appealed to policymakers, segments of the general public, and even some academics.

Two years later, Richard Lynn, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, published Dysgenics: Genetic Deterioration of Modern Populations, which connected human genetics, social class, and intelligence. His central thesis—that improvements in health care and welfare allow people of low intelligence to have more children—led him to conclude that society is experiencing a general decline in the quality of civilized life:

Natural selection has broken down. In centuries past, it did the job for us of weeding out those with low moral character or low intelligence. There was a high mortality rate. Now the underclass survive and have children. Obviously, some measures need to be taken.25

Strains of the eugenics movements also exist in other countries. China’s one-child policy is a well-known example. It was introduced in 1979 as a voluntary program, but within two years, economic and social incentives, coupled with intense community pressure, had a measurable effect on the birth rate—but the program also incited controversy. In a culture where male heirs are prized, the policy has resulted in some selective abortions in favor of boys, abandonment of baby girls, infanticide, and forced sterilizations. Parents who pledge to have one child but have a second must pay back all the one-child compensation they had received, as well as receive additional financial penalties. The State Family Planning Commission announced that the strict family planning regulation would continue until at least 2003, the end of the current government’s term of office (see Figure 1).26

In Singapore, the government embraced a dual-message approach: encouraging the wealthy and educated to have children while offering incentives to the poor and unschooled to be sterilized after having one or two children. Under the program, the children of university-educated parents received tax discounts and a preference in school selection. Disincentives for poor, single mothers included higher hospital fees for having a third child and cash incentives to be sterilized after the first or second child. But because of Singapore’s overall declining birthrate, the government has begun to offer a lucrative “Baby Bonus”—savings account deposits and fully paid maternity leave—in hopes of persuading the wealthy and educated population to multiply.27

In Sweden, where more than 60,000 people were sterilized under the Swedish Sterilization Act, recent controversy regarding the prevention of reproduction among the country’s “socially inferior” citizens has resurfaced. Between 1935 and 1976, the government’s eugenics program was designed to eliminate social undesirables while simultaneously improving the Nordic racial stock. In 1997, Swedish journalist Maciej Zaremba disclosed a forty-year history of adolescent girls who were involuntarily and arbitrarily sterilized for being sexually promiscuous, unintelligent, or antisocial.28 Other reports revealed that some “undesirable” Swedes were sterilized for having bad eyesight, being of mixed race, or having “unmistakable Gypsy features.”29

After the revelations in Sweden, citizens’ groups in Japan demanded formal apologies and compensation from the government for involuntary sterilizations carried out in their country between 1949 and 1995. With the aim of improving the Japanese people, a law permitted doctors to sterilize people without their consent if they were deemed mentally or physically handicapped or had certain hereditary diseases. The Japanese government refused to apologize or pay compensation, arguing that the procedures were legal and a matter of public record.30

Finally, in North America, Canada and the United States share a similar history with respect to eugenics. In Canada, eugenic sterilization, which was legal between 1929 and 1972, was performed on thousands of people; years later, seven hundred of those sterilized without their consent filed suit in Alberta and received compensation.31 Although the movement fell out of favor in much the same way that it did in the United States, a recent survey of medical professionals has led some health law experts to point to a revival of a Canadian eugenics movement.32


An Ethical Future?

Some critics warn that aspects of current genetic research are eerily reminiscent of a eugenics philosophy in modern medicine. Through programs such as the Human Genome Project, an effort to map the entire human genetic makeup, we now have more information than ever about genes, chromosomes, DNA, and particular medical conditions and diseases. Although we cannot fault modern science for finding biological markers for certain medical conditions, teachers must help students understand how linking complex human traits and behaviors to heredity is erroneous and may lead to unjust social policies.

Some historians worry that contemporary economic and social problems can give rise to a new eugenics movement. Given the perennial struggle over limited resources, we can expect eugenic proposals to resurface from time to time. The story of Carrie Buck provides a point of departure for discussing and understanding these multifaceted issues. Let us hope that educating present and future generations will avert another “disgraceful chapter of American legal history.”33



1. Paul Gray, “Cursed by Eugenics,” New York (11 January 1999): 84-85.

2. Gerald Grob, “Introduction,” in The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States, ed. Phillip R. Reilly (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), xi.

3. Ruth Macklin and Willard Gaylin, eds., Mental Retardation and Sterilization: A Problem of Competency and Paternalism (New York: Plenum Press, 1981).

4. Phillip R. Reilly, The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

5. Macklin and Gaylin, Mental Retardation.

6. Ian Robert Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane: Psychiatry and Eugenics in the United States, 1880-1940 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press).

7. Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985).

8. Stephen Jay Gould, The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985).

9. Matt Ridley, “The New Eugenics,” The National Review (31 July 2000): 34-36.

10. David J. Smith, “The Bell Curve and Carrie Buck: Eugenics Revisited,” Mental Retardation (February 1995): 61.

11. David J. Smith and K. Ray Nelson, The Sterilization of Carrie Buck (Fair Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press, 1989), 47.

12. Paul A. Lombardo, “Three Generations, No Imbeciles: New Light on Buck v. Bell,” New York University Law Review (April 1985): 30-62.

13. Buck v. Bell. 274 U.S. 200, 47 S. Ct. 584 (1927).

14. Steven Selden, Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America (New York: Teachers College Press, 1999).

15. Lombardo, “Three Generations,” 31.

16. United States Supreme Court, United States Reports 274 (1927), 207.

17. After Priddy’s death in 1925, Dr. J. H. Bell headed the Colony—hence the case name.

18. Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane.

19. Smith and Nelson, The Sterilization of Carrie Buck.

20. “Swedes Resent Scapegoat Role in Eugenics Controversy,” The Financial Times (6 September 1997): 2.

21. Smith and Nelson, The Sterilization of Carrie Buck.

22. Samuel Holmes, Human Genetics and Its Social Import (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1936).

23. Robert Fox and Ben Fenton, “Eugenics: The Skeleton in the Liberals’ Cupboard,” The Daily Telegraph (29 August 1997): 4.

24. Dowbiggin, Keeping America Sane.

25. As quoted in Luke Harding, “Academic Defends Underclass Claim,” The Guardian (23 December 1996): 7.

26. David Rennie, “Chinese Told One Child Is Rule to 2003,” The Daily Telegraph (London) (20 December 2000):13.

27. Richard Beeston, “Singapore Pays Parents to Have More Children,” The Times (London) (22 August 2000): 14.

28. Paul Gallagher, “The Man Who Told the Secret,” Columbia Journalism Review (January/February 1998): 65-66.

29. Associated Press, “Four Decades of Sterilizing Own Citizens Haunts Sweden,” The Post and Courier (26 August 1997): 8A.

30. Associated Press, “Japan Refuses to Admit Error Over Sterilization of Women,” The Post and Courier (18 September 1997): 11A.

31. Catherine Ford, “Alberta’s Sterilization Debate,” The Gazette (Montreal) (16 March 1998): B3.

32. Marily Moysa, “Eugenics Movement Revival? Evidence of Resurgence Reflected in Response to Medical Survey,” The Gazette (Montreal) (31 December 1995): A5.

33. Lombardo, “Three Generations,” 45.


Teaching Resources


Bajema, Carl J., ed. Eugenics: Then and Now. Stroudsburg, Penn.: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, 1976. This collection of historical documents on eugenics includes essays by Galton, Darwin, and Schockley. Laughlin’s “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law” and transcripts from Buck v. Bell are also included.

Ginsburg, Faye D., and Rayna Rapp, eds. The New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. The collection of essays investigates reproduction policies around the world.

Paul, Diane B. The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate. New York: SUNY Press, 1998. Ten essays explore the connections among science, social power, and public policy.

Paul, Diane B. Controlling Human Heredity. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1995. By tracing the history of eugenics, Paul analyzes what events shaped its development and how eugenics became so widely appealing. The book also explores the impact of eugenics on modern-day genetic medicine.

Selden, Steven. Inheriting Shame: The Story of Eugenics and Racism in America. New York: Teachers College Press, 1999. Selden offers a concise history of American eugenics, its impact on public schools, and ethical issues concerning contemporary genetic programs.

Smith, J. David, and K. Ray Nelson. The Sterilization of Carrie Buck. Fair Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press, 1989. This thorough and accessible book recounts Carrie Buck’s life, the trial, and Buck’s subsequent sterilization.



Eugenics Bibliography
The Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy at the University of Virginia developed a thorough reference list on the history of the eugenics movement in the United States.

Eugenics: To Be or Not To Be?
Created by a group of students at the University of New South Wales, this site offers a history, working definitions, and discussions of legal and moral issues surrounding eugenics.

Eugenics and the Misuse of Genetic Information to Restrict Reproductive Freedom
Teachers can use this official statement, approved by the Board of Directors of the American Society of Human Genetics in October 1998, as a primary source document to stimulate class discussion.

The Image Archives on the American Eugenics Movement
This website provides a fascinating and troubling record of more than 1,200 photographs, charts, reports, medical documents, posters, and other images on eugenics in the United States.

Legal Information Institute
The Legal Information Institute houses a collection of historic decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court. Users have access to the full decision of Buck v. Bell.

PBS People and Discoveries
This data bank of twentieth century scientists and their biographies provides links to Charles Davenport, William Shockley, and other luminaries in the field.


Michael J. Berson and Bárbara Cruz are associate professors in the Department of Secondary Education, College of Education, University of South Florida.

Teaching Tips


The history of eugenics and the Buck v. Bell case provide a number of opportunities for instruction, reflection, and debate. Far from an exhaustive list, the following instructional strategies can help teachers begin exploring this little-known event and its far-reaching consequences.



Have students construct a timeline of the eugenics movement, noting early theories of heredity and social Darwinism, key sterilization legislation, the Buck v. Bell case, World War II, and modern-day movements. A sample timeline is included in this article.



After students research the Buck v. Bell case, the class may conduct a role-play of the event. Some of the roles could include Carrie Buck, the Supreme Court Justices, the prosecution and defense attorneys, the Colony’s chief, and the Dobbs family. Students can retry the case either as if they were living in Buck’s time or according to today’s standards. Have the justices discuss the trial, come to an agreement about the outcome, and explain their decision to the rest of the class.


Carrie Buck’s Daughter

Justice Holmes’s reference to “three generations of imbeciles” included Carrie Buck’s daughter, Vivian. Although the child was diagnosed as mentally deficient at six months, school records and other evidence indicate that the child was normal and even bright by many standards. Ask students to read the chapter “Carrie Buck’s Daughter,” in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Flamingo’s Smile. Discuss this interesting, if tragic, postscript to this often-forgotten character in the Buck saga. Have students generate questions that they would ask Vivian in an interview. As a creative writing exercise, ask students to imagine that they are Vivian Buck and, in her voice, write about how it felt to be mislabeled and misjudged.


Debate on Involuntary Sterilization

Have students divide into groups and debate the following topics:


Patients’ Rights

When, fifty years later, reporters asked Carrie Buck about her sterilization, she replied, “They just told me I had to have an operation, that was all.” Indeed, thousands of people who were sterilized in North America had the procedure done without their knowledge or consent. Lead a class discussion on patients’ rights. Under what circumstances might a doctor or a hospital have the right to make a decision for a patient? Have students create a Code of Ethical Standards for a hospital in their community.


Case Study

In Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (Boston, Mass.: University Press of New England, 1999), historian Nancy Gallagher provides a fascinating account of Vermont’s sterilization program, which attempted to breed out poor health and bad character. One of the main targets, the Abenaki Indians, claimed that the program was part of a larger government scheme to eradicate their group. Have students investigate other examples of targeting racial and ethnic groups through eugenics. Students can use resources from their school library, the public library, and the Internet.


Discussion of Bioethics

Modern genetic and reproductive technologies have led to bioethical issues, such as sperm banks, in-vitro fertilization, cloning, artificial wombs, genetic screening, sex selection, “designer embryos,” and the purposeful creation of babies for the future harvesting of organs. Ask students when these technologies might be justifiable? What is the potential for abuse?


Using Genetic Screenings

Public debates in the United Kingdom have focused on whether insurance companies should be allowed to use genetic screenings when underwriting life or health insurance. Heated discussions continue in the United States as to whether employers should use genetic information in hiring and firing practices. After studying and debating the issue, have students write a position paper supporting their viewpoints.


Cross-Cultural Issues

Copy and distribute Figure 1 to the class or make an overhead transparency. After informing students about China’s one-child policy and its ramifications for genetic testing, lead a discussion on cultural values and mores. A related topic for discussion is population growth and involuntary sterilization. Should the United States limit trading with China to punish the government for their population growth programs?


Figure 1

What Do Geneticists Think?

Percent agreeing with the statement China Britain United States
Couples who are both carriers of a genetic disease should not have children 92 34 44
Genetic testing should be included in pre-employment physical examinations 86 46 59
Governments should require premarital carrier tests 86 4 5
A woman’s abortion decision should be her own 40 68 85

Source: Andy Coghlan, “Perfect People’s Republic,” New Scientist (24 October 1998): 18.