Alongside the benefits of our growing understanding of genetics, there’s been the dark shadow of its pseudoscience.
More than just an unfortunate chapter of history confined to Nazi Germany, eugenics — the practice of selective breeding — has long had a foot in American politics. North Carolina provides a perfect example of the wretched history of eugenics in the United States.
The focal point of the Old North State’s relationship with eugenics over the years was the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, a state board formed in 1933. It forcibly sterilized citizens, many of whom were black and impoverished.
The stated targets of sterilization of the Eugenics Board were the so-called “feeble-minded,” which was bad enough, but they also sterilized the blind and deaf, expanding to the sterilization of any welfare recipients social workers chose to single out. Over the course of more than 40 years, about 7,600 people were sterilized by the state until 1977, when the Eugenics Board was formally abolished. However, laws allowing involuntary sterilization remained in place until as late as 2003.
The driving force behind the forced sterilizations authorized by the Eugenics Board after World War II was the so-called “Human Betterment League,” an organization made up of Winston-Salem’s wealthy elite for the purpose of furthering the cause of eugenics in North Carolina. Founded in 1947, the efforts of the League led to an 80 percent increase in forced sterilizations in the state and continued to promote forced sterilizations until the early 1970s, eventually disbanding in 1988.