Tuesday, November 08, 2011

A native son and ethnic cleansing

Harry H. Laughlin

I’ve come across a couple of newspaper reports this week regarding North Carolina’s ongoing effort to compensate financially the surviving victims of that state’s officially-sanction sterilization program, in effect from 1929-1974. Estimates are that roughly 7,600 North Carolinians judged mentally ill, epileptic or “feeble-minded” were sterilized there while the program was in effect.

This relevant in Iowa for two reasons. During roughly the same period (commencing in 1929), Iowa’s State Eugenics Board ordered the sterilization of roughly 1,900 people, mostly women, in a similar effort to improve our breeding stock. Compensation has not been considered here, however.

Beyond that, Oskaloosa native Harry H. Laughlin (1880-1943) was perhaps America’s most influential eugenicist and shaped the compulsory sterilization legislation once in effect in 31 U.S. states, including Iowa and North Carolina.

Harry was quite a piece of work, not the sort of guy likely to find his way onto any list of native sons we’re proud of. Nor is his name likely to be found anywhere among the honored alumni of Truman State University down in Kirksville, where Laughlin continued his education at a time when it was known as the First District Normal School.

Initially a teacher, his interests turned to eugenics (an odd mix of pseudoscience and social engineering focused on improving breeding stock). From 1910 until 1939, Laughlin headed the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., a leader in the eugenics field.

Both racist and anti-Semitic, Laughlin also helped shape U.S. immigration policy during the 1920s, alleging in testimony before Congress that immigrants from eastern Europe and southern Europe (especially Italy) posed hazards to U.S. breeding stock.

He also drafted model compulsory sterilization laws that influenced many state legislatures, although few went quite as far as Lauglin would have. His targets included “the feeble minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, blind persons, deaf persons, deformed persons, and indigent persons.”

Nazi German’s 1933 “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” was based on a Laughlin model (leading to the sterilization of perhaps 350,000 people). Laughlin was awarded an honorary degree in 1936 by the University of Heidelberg for his work on the “science of racial cleansing.”

That link between eugenics and the Nazis, however, discredited the movement and forced closure during 1939 of the Eugenics Record Office. Laughlin, by this time diagnosed as an epileptic (one of his targets for cleansing), limped home to the Midwest --- fortunately to Kirksville, not to Iowa --- where he died during 1943.

All of this is interesting, of course, but in the past. Or is it? I sometimes wonder. I happened to see the other day via PBS an “Independent Len” documentary entitled “Donor Unknown,” dealing with adult children of a previously anonymous sperm donor who chose to reveal his identity.

The donor was a somewhat eccentric although pleasant guy --- dancer, ex-Playgirl model turned beach bum --- who had paid the rent for eight years by selling his sperm, up to four times a week when at his procreative height --- enough of it to populate a city or two, were that practical.

Mothers who selected his sperm had filled out a “want” list in doing so, in this guy’s case focusing on the fact he was tall, blond and blue-eyed with a sensitive, artistic and spiritual nature.

This, of course, is a very crude form of genetic engineering. There are more sophisticated approaches, and most likely the approach to designer babies will grow even more sophisticated --- and effective.

And while I don’t have too much patience with “pro-life” (or anti-abortion) rhetoric as it’s used right now, there really are some seeds of consensus worth listening to built into it --- if everyone would stop screaming.

If it becomes possible to predict with precision what sort of person a fetus will develop into, whom would we abort? Look at Laughlin’s list: “the feeble minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, alcoholics, blind persons, deaf persons, deformed persons, and indigent persons.”

Add “gay,” “red-haired,” “left-handed” and a few others to the list and It can cause a guy to wonder.

1 comment:

Ed said...

I watched Donor Unknown and last night's Eugenics piece on Rock Center. Both were very interesting. This was the first time I had ever heard of eugenics and was surprised when Iowa came up on the map as a state that had practiced it along with 37 other ones.