I recently presented an undergraduate class with this quotation: “Some day we will realize that the prime duty, the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his blood behind him in the world, and that we have no business to perpetuate citizens of the wrong type.” Most of the students attributed the quote to Adolf Hitler, and none guessed its actual author, Theodore Roosevelt. Seen through the prism of the Holocaust, “progressive eugenics” seems more like an unimaginable oxymoron, rather than the mainstream science policy of social progress that it was to so many early-twentieth-century reformers. Although Margaret Sanger did not apply her views to specific groups and abhorred Nazism, “planned parenthood” included the opportunity to reduce the transmission of undesirable traits through sterilization; in some cases, mental institutions sterilized retarded and mentally ill patients. And the deep imprint of these policies lives on: Several states have only recently issued formal apologies for all those thousands of lesser types they sterilized. Eugenic public-health practices rival Prohibition as the greatest success-turned-disaster in the history of American progressivism–all the more so because its history has been largely forgotten.
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Jonathan D. Moreno