Breed and Weed

In this biotech center, it's time we came to terms with Washington's role in the terrible history of eugenics.

On Monday, April 14, scientists announced they had finished sequencing the human genome. Such advances promise to shape and perhaps improve humankind. One word you don't hear often, though, is eugenics. Eugenics was the attempt to "improve" (or cleanse) humanity through science and selective breeding. It had its most extreme and hideous expression in the Holocaust. In fact, at least one German officer referred to Nazism itself as "applied biology." Today we remember eugenics as the insane rationalization for the Nazi death camps.

What we've largely forgotten, however, is that during the first half of the 20th century, eugenics was mainstream science and widely and popularly supported by business and political leaders, including many social reformers. In fact, the United States was one of the chief proponents of eugenics, and we had far more influence on Germany than the other way around.

There are two main ways of practicing eugenics. One is so-called "positive" eugenics, in which you try to produce people with specific characteristics. The notorious example would be the Nazi's SS breeding programs that sought to mate Aryans and produce the master race. One could argue that a more subtle form is practiced every day when people select a mate (just read our classifieds). Many people hook up because they're looking for specific qualities to pass along to their children. That seems natural enough. A little less natural, perhaps, are the more deliberate choices technology now makes possible as infertile couples ponder egg and sperm donors: Think of the sperm bank that sells seed from certified "geniuses."

The other side is "negative" eugenics and refers to programs to stop the so-called "unfit" from breeding: The death camps were at one extreme, but sterilization, euthanasia, castration, and abortion have all been used as tools for negative eugenicsto weed "undesirables" from the population.

Advocates of negative eugenics tended to fall into two camps: One was liberal social reformers who believed that society would be made better by nipping problems in the bud. Keeping the unfit from reproducing would reduce crime, offer humane alternatives to institutionalization, and eradicate disease. The welfare state could spend its resources helping the truly worthy.

The other group believed that certain people were inherently inferior: blacks, Asians, Jews, criminals, gays, the poor, the blind. Sterilization was the preferred tool of both camps

Perhaps because eugenics was based on the discoveries of Charles Darwin, and social Darwinism wasand still isrampant in America, negative eugenics caught on big here. The fit have a better chance of flourishing if the unfit are out of the picture. Involuntary sterilization laws allowed officials to sterilize anyone deemed "unfit." In 1907, Indiana passed the first such law; more than 30 states followed. An estimated 60,000 Americans were sterilized under eugenics laws until 1970.

Washington was the second state to jump on the eugenics bandwagon, in 1909. We passed a second law in 1921, largely inspired by a statute in Oregon. The Oregon and Washington laws had nearly identical language, providing involuntary sterilization for the "feeble minded, insane, epileptic, habitual criminal, degenerates, and sexual perverts." This often included reform-school girls, welfare moms, the retarded, gays, and the physically disabled.

How Many People did Washington sterilize in the name of improving the gene pool? The best estimate is close to 700. Washington's law was overturned by the state Supreme Court in 1942; Oregon's stayed on the books into the 1980s, and more than 2,600 were sterilized there.

Washington and Oregon were not alone in embracing eugenics. Many of our neighbors did, too, including British Columbia, Alberta, Idaho, and California. Nor is this the only instance of our state's advocacy of cruelty in the name of science. It was a Washington doctor who popularized treating the mentally ill with ice-pick lobotomies (without an anesthetic, by the way). It was a University of Washington scientist who, from 1963-1973, conducted federally funded sterilization experiments on Northwest prison-inmate "volunteers" by exposing their testicles to radiation.

As we face a future with even more powerful tools with which to manipulate and control who reproduces and what they reproduce, we should be mindful that good intentions often go terribly wrong.

An ad hoc movement of disabled- and gay-rights activists has been winning apologies from states for eugenics laws. Last year, the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, and Oregon apologized, spurred also by newspaper exposť≥†of past practices. Last month, Gov. Gray Davis apologized for the some 20,000 sterilizations performed in California. His apology came only hours after an expert on the history of American eugenics, Paul Lombardo of the University of Virginia's Center for Biomedical Ethics, testified at a hearing. No one has formally asked the governor's office here for an apology. Yet.

Washington, though, should be a place where the ethics of the past are questioned with an eye on how our new technologies will shape our future. "To me," says Lombardo, "there are hard questions to be asked about our motives." Indeed, our intentions require scrutiny, along with the science. Gov. Gary Locke should stand uplike other governorsand apologize for past practices. Not because heor weare responsible for what happened, but because such things should never happen again.

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