Eugenics in America

Elaine Riddick is just one of 60,000 Americans who fell foul of a shocking policy of eugenics operative in the United States for the majority of the last century. On June 22 Ms. Riddick will tell, to a task force specially assembled for victims such as her, the story of how in 1968 she was sterilised at the hands of US government at the age of 14.

Ms. Riddick was raped and impregnated when she was 13 years-old by a neighbour in her hometown of Winfall, North Carolina. She was singled out by a social worker to be “feeble-minded”, and after giving birth through Caesarian section, with putative “consent” from her fearful and illiterate grandmother, who signed with an ‘X’ the necessary forms, was subjected to tubal ligation, permanently preventing her from producing any future children. These actions were carried out under a eugenicist movement in the US, beginning in 1907, ending in 1979, and sanctioned by laws in 32 states. (Full report on BBC News website).

The policy of sterilisation reportedly targeted women deemed to be sexual deviants, homosexual men, people on welfare, people who were mentally ill or suffered from epilepsy, criminals, and delinquents. The idea placed emphasis on the attempt to preclude the necessity of supporting those who most likely would be able to support neither themselves nor the rest of society by removing altogether the means for their creation. Speaking to the BBC, Professor Paul Lombardo of Georgia State University, editor of a book on the history of eugenics in America, said:

We have in this country have always been extremely sensitive to notions of public stories of inappropriate sexuality

We exercise that most dramatically when it comes to times in which we think we’re spending individual tax money to support people who violate those social norms. It’s our puritanical background, running up against our sense of individualism.

Other members of society petitioned to the Eugenics Board of North Carolina to be sterilised reportedly included a black 25-year-old rape victim who showed “abnormal sexual tendencies”, an 18-year-old girl, separated from her husband who had “manifested anti-social behaviour”, and a white married mother of three, whose family had been “finally dependent for many years” and had “a history of inter-marriage with Indian and Negro”.

It is estimated that 2,900 of the 1,110 men and 6,418 women sterilised in North Carolina are still alive, and the members of the Justice for Sterilisation Victims Task Force, to whom Ms. Riddick will testify, are now rallying for compensation to be paid out to all who were wronged by this astonishing injustice.

It would be hard to say that these darkest of waters in American history merely raise a debate on human rights; hard, because it would be difficult for anybody to make a convincing case that the victims involved suffered anything but a fundamental violation of their rights. Instead it once again indicates in disturbing detail the depths of depravity and injustice human beings found available to them in the 20th century, and how chillingly adept we found ourselves to be at this particular brand; eugenics.

 

Related Philosophy Compass Articles:

 

Are Human Rights Essentially Triggers for Intervention?

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 4, Issue 6, December 2009, Pages: 938–950, John Tasioulas

 

Rights Theory

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 1, Issue 1, January 2006, Pages: 11–21, George W. Rainbolt

 

Selecting Children: The Ethics of Reproductive Genetic Engineering

PHILOSOPHY COMPASS

Volume 3, Issue 5, September 2008, Pages: 973–991, S. Matthew Liao

Author: David Woods

David is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Southampton. His main research interest is the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, as well as the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil, optimism and pessimism, and post-Marxian critical philosophy.

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