CBC’s National Director, Jennifer Lahl interviews Christine Rosen, author of Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (2004)
1. Why did you write Preaching Eugenics? Was there a big overarching questions you were attempting to answer?
I wrote Preaching Eugenics because I thought it was important to describe this unknown part of our eugenic past. I took it up not in the spirit of an expose (indeed, I wasn’t even sure what I’d find when I started working my way through the archives) but as an effort to contribute to existing scholarship on the subject – a new layer of mortar and brick for the already impressive wall of scholarly work about eugenics in the United States, if you will. If I began with any overarching question in mind, it was a broad one: what was the relationship between religion and science in this time and place (the early twentieth century United States) and what role did eugenics play in that relationship?
2. Who were the religious leaders propagating this growing social movement? Why did they support it?
Across denominations and faiths, the Protestants, Catholics, and Jews who supported eugenics were overwhelmingly from the liberal end of the theological spectrum. This did not mean that they were politically liberal, of course, but they did tend to share a commitment to a non-literal reading of scripture and were optimistic about the benefits that modern science might bring to bear on the many pressing social problems they felt the country faced. Most of the religious supporters of eugenics had long ago reconciled their faiths with evolutionary theory, for example, and many of them had considerable experience in charities and corrections work, which colored their views about things such as degeneracy and poverty. Broadly speaking, why did they support it? These were religious leaders who embraced modern ideas first and adjusted their theologies later. Most of them did this because they sincerely believed, with most progressives at the time, that eugenics would alleviate human suffering.
3. What was going on with early feminism at this time? Was there a role the feminists played to support this movement or were there voices speaking out against it?
One of the most vigorous supporters of eugenics was birth control activist Margaret Sanger. She lobbied intensely, and ultimately successfully, for the organized eugenics movement and the birth control movement to join forces to improve the human race by preventing reproduction among the “less fit” members of society. At an international eugenics conference in 1921, for example, Sanger said, “The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the overfertility of the mentally and physically defective.” Her periodical, the Birth Control Review, published many supportive articles about eugenics and in her book, Woman and the New Race, she wrote that birth control “is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, or preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives.” This certainly places her far outside the mainstream of feminism today, and many feminists are loath to acknowledge Sanger’s avid embrace of eugenics, but in the early twentieth century, among self-described progressives such as Sanger, this was an entirely acceptable view to promote.
4. Who were the voices crying out against this early eugenics movement? And to what effect?
Some of the most vigorous opponents of eugenics were Catholics and conservative Protestants. In books and periodicals, they registered their complaints about eugenics and its outgrowths—including immigration restriction and compulsory sterilization of the “unfit.” Catholic detractors usually cited natural law teaching in their opposition to eugenics, while conservative Protestants (many of whom still resisted evolutionary theory), drew on scripture. They did have some impact; indeed, Catholic lobbying efforts at the state level were successful many times in preventing the passage of state eugenic sterilization laws.
5. Are there similarities between the early eugenics movement and today? What are the lessons for us to be learned?
I hesitate to draw lessons from history. My hope is that the book will teach people about a neglected part of our past and in the process perhaps remind us that many of the difficult ethical questions we face about our technologies today – from genetic testing, to sex selection techniques, to preimplantation genetic diagnosis—are unusual only in their specifics. The questions of whether and how much we should exercise control over our own reproduction, or the reproduction of others, have been asked since time immemorial, as has the question of what, exactly, qualifies a person as “fit” or “healthy.” The difference today is that we now have before us information and techniques that eugenicists in the early twentieth century could only dream about. But the deeper questions we must answer remain the same.
6. What are your biggest concerns? If Preaching Eugenics is written in another 100 years, what will be the story of today’s religious communities and leaders?
The first concern I have is that so few Americans know the history of eugenics in our own country; they believe eugenics was something only Nazis practiced. But it happened here first. Related to this is the idea that just because the state is not imposing eugenics (as it did in the U.S. in the early twentieth century through compulsory state sterilization laws) that we no longer practice eugenics. But choosing the sex of your child or using amniocentesis to test for Down syndrome and then aborting the child are both forms of eugenics, and I share with many observers a concern about the expansion of this individual, consumer-driven form of eugenics. This, combined with our many reproductive technologies, threatens to upend our conceptions of the family, of the responsibilities of one generation to the next, and possibly even of what it means to be human.
How might we look back on today’s religious leaders in 100 years? I think we would find that they had almost entirely ceded authority to bioethicists – a profession that now tackles these questions from the ivory tower rather than the pulpit. And unfortunately it does not always bring to bear the same ethical and moral insights that religious leaders do. I hope to see much greater participation by religious leaders of all faiths in the future – in the public discussions about these new technologies and in the individual guidance they offer to their congregants.
7. What, in your opinion, is the root of eugenics? Will this always be with us?
The root of eugenics is age old and incapable of eradication, because it is part of who we are as human beings – it is the desire to improve, perfect, and elevate ourselves. This desire, when taken to extremes, casts light on another human constant: hubris. One need only reference the Tower of Babel, Plato’s Republic, the flight of Icarus, the story of Frankenstein, etc. to see that history is riddled with this impulse. Whether and how we confront it in the case of modern eugenics will be one of our most important challenges in the future.
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