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Surprising Science

U.S. Eugenics: When a Low I.Q. Meant Sterilization

As shocking as it sounds, eugenics was a practice made popular by an American social engineering movement in the 1920s and 30s. Today, the victims of the program want redress.

What’s the Latest Development?

North Carolina legislators are trying to determine how to compensate victims of the nation’s most ambitious sterilization program, an extension of a social engineering philosophy that targeted America’s poor starting in the 1920s. Many states had sterilization programs in the first half of the 20th century, but none were so aggressive as North Carolina’s. The state typically used I.Q. tests or folksy assessments like being ‘oversexed’ to select candidates. Consent given for the procedure was often coerced, e.g. welfare payments could be held over families’ heads.

What’s the Big Idea?

It is frightening to consider that the Greatest Generation bore witness to such a dangerous social engineering program. To be sure, it was not a policy that had a democratic mandate. “Wealthy businessmen, among them James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, drove the eugenics movement. … The program affected black Americans disproportionately because they were more often poor and uneducated and from large rural families.”

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