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The eugenic mindset today

Seldom discussed in Vermont’s history is the Eugenics Project of the early 20th century. While only formally in practice during the 1920s and 1930s, there is clear evidence that the eugenic mindset survives today. In fact, eugenic thinking has expanded beyond the dictionary definition of controlling who is born to also include the act of controlling who dies.

The Eugenics Project was actively promoted by University of Vermont Professor of Zoology Henry Perkins, who undertook to cleanse the Vermont gene pool of people he called “feebleminded, stupid and shiftless,” characteristics he attributed to their “defective genes.” His work led to a program of surveys to identify families that met Perkins’ criteria; they tended to be poor and belong to ethnicities he considered undesirable, with a focus on people of Abenaki and French-Canadian descent. The project began under private funding but expanded with the direct participation of state government to remove those persons from the reproductive population by forced sterilization. 

Perkins, who later served as president of the American Eugenics Society, used his survey data to persuade the Vermont Legislature to expand the Vermont State School for the care and training of feebleminded children (5-21 years old). It soon assumed the eugenic function of segregating from society “feebleminded women” of childbearing age and coercing their consent for sterilization in exchange for their release from the school.  

The project earned national and international attention from early eugenics advocates, including Margaret Sanger, founder of what is now Planned Parenthood.  Sanger went on to publish and edit a volume of articles on the eugenic aspects of birth control, including, “Sterilization: A Modern Medical Program for Human Health and Welfare,” (June 5, 1951), which advocated for a program of sterilization of the vulnerable and disabled.     

The Catholic Church and Catholic Daughters were vocal opponents of this movement, yet, in 1931, the Vermont legislature passed “A Law for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization.” Section 1 read:

“Henceforth it shall be the policy of the state to prevent procreation of idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons, when the public welfare, and the welfare of idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons likely to procreate, can be improved by voluntary sterilization as herein provided.”

What does “eugenic thinking” look like in our culture today? Consider Vermont’s recently-passed Act 120 (formerly House Bill H.620), the contraceptive mandate law of 2016 which expands Vermont’s existing contraceptive mandate to include sterilization.  Under this law, women will be offered sterilization during the highly vulnerable time immediately after giving birth, a strategy designed to encourage Medicaid subscribers to stop having children, and a goal lauded by Gov. Peter Shumlin in his January Budget Message. The term “Medicaid subscriber” in this context appears to be a code phrase for “poor woman.”  To achieve control of Medicaid expenditures by demeaning the rights, the dignity and the status of a relatively powerless group, is simply wrong. 

Another example of eugenic thinking can be found in Act 39, the Vermont Legislature’s Physician Assisted Suicide law, passed in 2013, which mandates that physicians raise the option of assisted suicide with their terminally ill patients. Vulnerable people, contending with the financial and emotional burdens their illnesses may have on their families and others, must be “educated” about the option to end their lives. Intended or not, this “education” comes with the implicit suggestion that perhaps their lives are no longer worth living – that their humanity no longer matters. How is that a dignified way to die?  

The abuses of assisted suicide and euthanasia laws in other countries are enormous and include involuntary euthanasia of mentally challenged and disabled persons. In April 2002, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. Although the law’s intent was to end the suffering of terminally ill patients, a growing number of physically healthy people with psychological illnesses have been granted “the right to die.” According to the Royal Dutch Medical Association, 13 patients suffering from mental illness were euthanized in 2011; by 2013 this number had risen to 42 patients. Even more disturbing, in 2013, as many as 650 babies were killed by doctors because they were deemed to be in pain or facing a life of suffering. Even in the United States, 90 percent of all babies diagnosed with Down syndrome in the womb are killed by doctors through abortion procedures.

Regardless of the frugal or humanitarian intent, the underlying eugenic thinking is unmistakable.

When government disregards the rights and the dignity of any marginalized community, we all become vulnerable to arbitrary decisions of the powerful. We all become complicit in the evil that is done in our name. The Church must continue to be vigilant in speaking for the marginalized, including the terminally ill, the unborn and the poor. We must advocate on behalf of the voiceless for the inherent dignity and worth of every single human life.

Article written by Deacon Pete Gummere and Carrie Handy.
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