Eugenics in America

May 26, 2011

Illustration from a 1954 brochure, ''The Population Bomb''

In the first decades of the 20th century, the eugenics movement led scientists and policy makers to embrace radical tenets of genetic engineering. This movement included involuntary sterilization of criminals, poor people, the mentally impaired and minorities – in hopes of breeding out undesirable traits. Most Americans refuted eugenics after World War II, but a small contingent of influential researchers and social engineers remained devoted to the flawed science. Their persistence led to state-supported, involuntary sterilizations as late as the 1970s. In 2002, then-Governor Mike Easley issued an apology for the atrocities the state committed in the name of eugenics.

Earlier this week, the state’s Eugenics Task Force met to consider how to compensate victims. Freelance journalist Kevin Begos helped prompt the official apology with stories he wrote in 2002. He has revisited the topic and found that the post-World War II eugenics movement reached farther and affected more people than previously thought. His new, three-part series appears in The Independent Weekly. Host Frank Stasio talks about the articles with Begos and Alexandra Stern, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan and the author of the book "Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America" (University ofCalifornia Press/2005).