Neo-Eugenics: WWII and After

WWII Eugenics

American Eugenics Ideas spread beyond its borders during the early 20th century. One of the biggest supporters of Eugenics was Adolf Hitler. A quote from Hitler’s infamous book Mein Kampf says “There is today one which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of citizenship] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”

Sterilization of Minorities Post WWII

    Outside of California the main two groups targeted by eugenic sterilizations were African-Americans and Native Americans.


    In North Carolina, where sterilization rapidly expanded after the Second World War, sterilization of Blacks was greatly disproportionate to their population in the state, as the state saw poor Blacks as a strain on welfare resources and so sought sterilization as a way for relief. The heads of welfare department agencies agreed that there was value in sterilization as a tool for reducing general welfare relief. These efforts vastly targeted women, especially women of color, who were under the age of 20. Additionally, sterilization transitioned away from mostly targeting those who were institutionalized, and between 1952 and 1966 some 76% of the sterilization victims in North Carolina were not institutionalized.


    In the aftermath of the Second World War, many of the eugenics programs throughout the United States had ceased operations, either due to not having accomplished much in regards to their goals, or due to the more intense association with the Nazi eugenics programs. The Sterilization League of New Jersey, though, not only decided to continue operations but voted to grow into a national organization.


    At first, the group had little in the way of funds, until Dr. Clarence Gamble joined the effort, he and his brother made considerable donations to the new group (now called “Birthright”). Birthright attempted to maintain a level of secrecy, as the Catholic Church was influential in its opposition to sterilization. Despite early setbacks, Birthright pushed ahead with its pro-eugenics literature. Several Birthright-run experiments took place, mostly in North Carolina, attempting to prove that eugenics had little to do with race and they sought to sterilize “the worst type in every social class”, including a controversial experiment that promoted “exceptional Blacks”. Birthright’s initial momentum died down by the end of the 1940s, and by the 1960s Birthright’s successor organization the Human Betterment Association of America renounced the practice of involuntary sterilization. Despite this, though, the post-War precedent Birthright set allowed involuntary sterilization to continue and expand to minority populations throughout much of the country.

Questions to Consider

  • Why were minorities sterilized in North Carolina?

  • Do you think sterilization was based on race? Social status? Both?

    In the 1970s the sterilization of Native American women coincided with an increase in attempts to assimilate the indigenous population of the United States. The Indian Health Service was formed in an effort to bring better medical care to Native American populations, but even after its founding operated on the idea that Native Americans were morally and mentally inferior. This resulted in many impromptu and poorly planned attempts to improve healthcare. Some IHS doctors did not believe that Native Americans had the intelligence to use more common birth control effectively, and as such sterilization wa pursued. The IHS, working under government ideas that Native birth rates should be decreased, along with inaccurately describing operations to targeted women and relaxed law enforcement attitudes, sterilization over twenty five percent of Native women of childbearing age between 1970 and 1976. The effects of these programs and IHS oversight is still felt in tribes today, as such a massive percentage of the population was sterilized without full knowledge of the effects of the operations.


    As of 1982 fifteen percent of white women of childbearing age had been sterilized, far below the  twenty four percent of African American women, thirty five percent of Puerto Rican women, and forty two percent of Native American women. Due to the fact that many of these sterilizations were forced, uninformed, or otherwise involuntary, it is clear that American eugenics continued long after the Second World War, though usually under a different name.

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