The more things change…

the more they stay the same.  I’m reading “The Mansion of Happiness” by Jill Lepore, a collection of essays arranged so they comprise a history of life and death which is the book’s subtitle.  Lepore is an historian and essayist.  (We heard her lecture on her newest book about Jane Franklin and my husband came home and ordered all of his books.)  One chapter is titled Mr. Marriage.  In it, Lepore recounts a number of things including the history of marriage counseling and the history of eugenics.  I bet you didn’t know they were connected; I certainly didn’t.

Cover of "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"

Cover of Can This Marriage Be Saved?

When I was a kid, my mother used to subscribe to the Ladies Home Journal and I would read “Can this Marriage Be Saved?”.  I wonder how many of my generation got some of their ideas about marriage from reading this feature.  In any case, Paul Popenoe who wrote the column was the father of marriage counseling.  He was also a leader in the movement to sterilize the “unfit” to prevent them from having children.  Lepore writes, ” He considered marriage counseling the flip side of compulsory vasectomy and tubal ligation:  sterilize the unfit; urge the fit to marry.”  The early eugenicists  were influenced by Darwin and the theory of evolution.  If one could breed better plants and livestock, why not better people?

Lepore writes

…In the United States, what come to be called social Darwinism provided conservatives with an arsenal of arguments in favor of laissez-faire economic policies, against social welfare programs, and in support of Jim Crow. “The Negro”, it was argued, was “nearer to the anthropoid or pre-human ancestry of men” than any other race, a living missing link; only slavery had prevented the extinction of the black American; if not for the peculiar institution, natural selection would have led to the death of the entire race.

I guess they ignored the fact that many, likely most, African-Americans had a white ancestor in the family tree.  No matter, Paul Popenoe thought about 10% of the population should be sterilized.  This would have been determined in part by the IQ test that was relatively new at the time and, of course, by race. In 1918, Popenoe wrote a book with Rosewell Hill Johnson titled “Applied Eugenics”.

Popenoe and Johnson deemed miscegenation “biologically wrong” because “the Negro lacks in his germ-plasm excellence of some qualities which the white races possess. For poverty, Popenoe and Johnson blamed the poor, citing a study reporting that 55 percent of  retarded children belonged to the laboring class.  The solution to want was to sterilize the needy.  Following Terman [Lewis M.], Popenoe and Johnson opposed old-age pensions, minimum-wage legislation, and child-labor laws: by helping the biologically and mentally unfit, these programs perpetuated a poor gene pool, just as slavery had protected blacks from extinction.

Echoes of the eugenicists can be heard in the current efforts of certain members of the Republican party who only wanted to fund programs they liked during the recent government shutdown.  And the intense dislike, maybe hatred isn’t too strong a word, of President Obama perhaps isn’t just because he is black, but because he is the product of a an African father and white mother.  You hear it in the effort to defund the Affordable Heath Care Act.  As my husband pointed out when I was reading Lepore and ranting, Ron Paul stated during a Republican Presidential debate the if someone couldn’t afford care or didn’t have a policy that would be their own responsibility.  (Going back to the transcript, Paul didn’t actually say that person should be left to die, but that nonprofits like churches would help after the hospital provided medical care, that having health insurance should be a private decision, and provision of health care should not be a governmental responsibility.  Actually, given the current state of the economy and the finances of nonprofits these day, it is the equivalent of letting someone die.)

I will listen to the arguments in the upcoming budget fight with great interest and I bet I will hear more echoes of Paul Popenoe.  The more things change…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s