Modern American Eugenics: The Right to Bear Children

CW: sexual assault, unethical treatment, medical abuse and malpractice, discussions about colonization, eugenicism, and related topics, i.e. racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc. Take care of yourself as needed.

Like many women, I’ve often heard some variation of “When are you going to have children?” While it’s not something I like being asked, it’s also not an unreasonable conclusion. I’m currently living with my partner of three years, and we’re committed to each other and love each other. So, it’s somewhat reasonable—albeit intrusive as hell— to ask us if we’d like to have children.

This seemingly innocent question begins to grow into something else, something a bit shadier, when I tell people that we are not ready to have children. Sometimes, the response is that the two of us should have children. This insistence that my partner and I must procreate is because these people believe that we both have top-notch genes to pass on to future generations. For example, we are both intelligent. We’re both kind, generous, and caring. We’re also not that bad looking either.

Notice how some of these traits are learned and not passed on. This is a part of the larger problem.

This type of response begs a larger question: why does it matter if two people should or should not have children based on genetics?

The problem itself has many layers. People who “look disabled”, meaning people who cannot pass as able-bodied, are not asked, “When are you going to have children?” The question of my impending motherhood often comes up in conversations with neurologists in relation to epilepsy. Because I have genetic epilepsy, it is heavily suggested that I shouldn’t have children. This is something that the people who suggest my partner and I should have children don’t know because they can’t see that I have epilepsy.

Both sides of this particular coin are forms of modern eugenics. To best explain eugenics, I need to take you through a rather large chunk of Western European and American history.

To start, let me take you back to the mid-19th century. In November of 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of the Species, his theory of evolution. He published his work during a Victorian-age world, in which Great Britain had conquered and owned nearly half of that world. This theory was then appropriated by those conquerors, mainly proponed by Herbert Spencer. The Victorian bourgeoisie argued that this theory was applicable to the social stratification of people and cultures. This appropriation is called social Darwinism.


The aftermath of social Darwinism is well-documented. Social Darwinism argued that the poor were poor due to a “biological defect.” It argued that slaves were meant to be slaves because of their “biological makeup.” Social Darwinism gave conquerors and white elites a “scientifically” justified excuse to continue to subjugate the poor and the nonwhite people of whatever lands they had conquered. It argued that those who were white, elite, heterosexual, and able-bodied were simply better due to their “genetic fitness.”

In the early 20th century, social Darwinism took on a new life in the form of “eugenics.” No explicit scholarship exists that argues for a direct causal link between these two concepts, but these concepts share many of the same traits. Like social Darwinists, eugenicists argue that there is a genetically “fit” race in the world. There are two forms of eugenics: positive and negative. Francis Galton coined the term in 1883, and he argued that the “ablest and healthiest” people should reproduce. Galton’s concept of eugenics is labeled as “positive,” whereas negative eugenics argues that it is best to rid the population of people who had “undesirable” genetics. It’s important to note that “genetics” was believed to encompass many things: race, poverty level, cultural background, or religious beliefs. These aspects of human beings, obviously, are not genetic traits. However, they were encompassed underneath the umbrella of eugenic “fitness.” As Professor Elof Carlson notes, “The eugenics movement in the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia favored the negative approach.”

Thus, able-bodied, white women were encouraged to have children. They were offered prizes and validation for their literal labor of having children. In Germany, “fit” mothers were awarded stipends from the German government for having children.


women fitter family contest

4-H Girls Club Preliminary winners of a fitter family contest, circa 1925.


If this language sounds familiar to you, then it should. In 1933, the German government began created a series of restrictive legislation targeting Jewish individuals. They made registries of their Jewish citizens. They began to segregate people into ghettos. They mass executed people and performed experiments on individuals trapped in concentration camps.

They argued that Jewish people, LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities were not “fit” enough to live.

Due to the result of the eugenics performed by Nazis and the aftermath of World War II, many of us vowed that it will “never happen again.” We vowed to never let any sort of institution determine who is or is not fit to live.

The problem with that is that we never quite stopped. In Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, she discusses the long history of the way medicine has been used to target black bodies in the United States. One important, often-forgotten example is that black women were used as medical subjects to test the effects of early contraceptives. The result from these coercive experiments was that black women were prevented from having children. This is an example of negative reproduction. In order to create a “fitter race,” the “others” seen as less genetically fit were prohibited or prevented from reproducing.

medical apartheid cover

Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, available at Penguin Books.


This occurred after World War II. This occurred after we vowed “never again.”

Like race, disability was a priority subject for many eugenicists. People with disabilities were housed in specialized asylums, and the individuals housed there endured abuse and forced sterilization. These practices existed before the eugenic movement, as did abusive practices against people of color, but both gained trajectory and thrived during the eugenic movement itself. The most famous example we have is Carrie Buck, a young American woman who had been raped and was sterilized without her consent. She was considered “feebleminded,” a trait that historian Anne Stubblefield argues is “socially constructed” and inherently designed to label someone who did not perform as the perfect white woman as “disabled.” She argues that the label of disability was constructed as a tool in order to remove someone from society, to prevent them from having children in order to prop up social conventions at the time as to what a “fit” family would be.


After her stay in the Virginia Colony of Epileptics and Feebleminded, Carrie sued the doctor responsible for her sterilization. She lost and then appealed her suit to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the good doctor’s decision because, according to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

There is an easy response to this long and tragic history. The easy response here is to say: “But that was so long ago. That doesn’t happen now.”

For people with disabilities, the struggle to be heard and to have the right to have children continues. There are two major misunderstandings that fuel the eugenic belief that people with disabilities should not have children. One, it is believed that for the betterment of society, people with disabilities should not procreate at the risk of producing children with disabilities. Two, it is believed that people with disabilities cannot procreate at all.  Therefore, people with disabilities are deprived of the education and tools necessary in order to have a healthy sex life. Their desire to possibly have children is conflated as a medical justification as to why they should not or cannot have children.

This type of restriction has tangible results. I was diagnosed with a rare form of genetic epilepsy at age eleven. After I was diagnosed, the future had always seemed immediate. I was under the impression that I would die at a relatively young age. I was also under the impression that I wouldn’t be physically able to have children nor would I ever experience any type of partnership with another human being.

I now realize that none of this is true. I had jumped to most of these conclusions on my own. No one outright said to me “You shouldn’t have children because your genetics are messed up.” The problem is that no one needed to. Because of how little we value the lives of people with disabilities, no one had to say anything. The message was loud and clear in media, in portrayals of individuals with disabilities, in how we talk about disability and the future. That message is: “People with disabilities should not be alive let alone have children.”

The trend of these type of disability rights arguments, such as the right to a family, the right to reproduction, and the right to birth without genetic alteration often masquerade themselves as pro-life arguments. In order to argue completely pro-choice, you have to ask the hard questions: is it alright if a poor woman who finds out her child may have a disability aborts that child in order to preserve her financial future? Is it alright to alter the genetics of the embryo to prevent disability in the child if the child is expected to die anyway? Does the well-being of women everywhere matter more or less than what aborting a potentially disabled fetus says to thousands of children with disabilities?

The problem in approaching forced sterilization within a strictly pro-life framework is that it does not interact with the inherent complexity of these questions. The problem is implied in the name: Carrie Buck’s sterilization was forced. She did not consent to her sterilization. It would be an entirely different question if Carrie had spent her days considering the abortion, thinking of the consequences, and then ultimately deciding if it’s the right thing for her. She wasn’t given that option, much like many women who face bearing a child they don’t want because their government refuses to consider their needs as citizens instead of as reproductive vessels for the state.

In truth, both forced sterilizations and forced births are not acceptable. In truth, we cannot tell women who want to make this choice not to, because that would violate their right to bodily autonomy. In truth, we cannot force women and men with disabilities to be sterilized because that would also deprive them of bodily autonomy. Either way, strongly discouraging women with disabilities to have children while expecting or encouraging seemingly able-bodied women to have them perpetuates the notion that certain people deserve to live over other individuals.

How does this bring us back to random strangers asking me and my partner about our desire to have children? I think you can figure that one out for yourself.



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