As I watched Congressman Paul Ryan the other day, beaming his boyish grin while he talked with obvious joy about the benefits of stripping health insurance from the poor, sick, and elderly, I had a disturbing feeling of dejå vu. It is disturbing, because it seems to make some sense of recent events.
It had been bothering me for a while now, this string of politicians actively seeking to punish the less fortunate. Ryan’s insistence that cutting school lunches would be good for the children’s souls, the drive to cut Social Security, women’s health centers, Meals-On-Wheels – even for Republicans, this sounded unusually cruel.
It’s gone so far that we have seen Secretary of Health Tom Price listen to a man who reported that Obamacare saved his life, allowing him to get cancer treatment, and that if it was repealed, he would die. Secretary Price smiled, and went on to explain that the Medicaid program would be even stronger if sick and poor people (like this man) were kicked off of it.
Then of course the Budget Office’s recent assessment of TrumpCare makes it clear the system is rigged to benefit the young, healthy, and wealthy at the expense of the old, sick, and poor. The famous example is that a 64-year old making $26,400 a year would pay about $1700 for health insurance by 2026 under the current Obamacare, but would have to pay $14,600 per year – 55% of their income under TrumpCare.
Then it hit me, why all this sounded so familiar. It reminded me of something most Americans have either forgotten, or never heard of in the first place. It certainly does not get much attention in our history books.
I’m talking of course about the Theory of Eugenics. When most people hear the word “eugenics”, they may think of Nazi Germany, and trying to breed to a blond-hair blue-eye master race, but that is just a small offshoot of this insidous way of thinking that was much more popular among the elites before World War 2.
In fact, it was the late 1800’s when Francis Galton, a member of the British upper-class, first coined the term “eugenics”. From the Greek roots, it means “good origin” or “good birth”. Mr. Galton noticed what fine fellows his upper-class friends were, and how dirty, and diseased the lower classes were, and decided that good breeding was the explanation. They were healthy and wealthy because they came from better stock, much the way you can breed animals for certain characteristics.
This idea caught on big in the United States, where barons of industry were dealing with uppity workers as well. A new institute was set up, the Eugenics Record Office, to track the traits of various families. Of particular interests were “undesirable” traits found in so many of the working classes, such as pauperism, mental disability, dwarfism, promiscuity, and criminality.
“Pauperism” is very interesting here. We are still seeing today this idea that if you are poor, it must be your own fault. The President* himself has made it very clear he feels anyone who is not rich is either lazy, an idiot, or both.
This movement peaked in the 20’s and 30’s with the American Eugenics Society, which actually held “fitter family” and “better baby” competitions, to highlight which families had the best genes.
Interestingly, and germane to today’s events, the Eugenics movement in the USA took a different turn from the movement in England. Where the English sought to encourage the spread of positive traits, in America the trend was to identify and eliminate the negative traits!
Here in the Land of the Free, it was noticed that the “undesirable traits” were found mostly in the poor, uneducated, and minorities. So attempts were made to stop these groups from breeding. Serious attempts, even legislation enforcing forced sterilization of people deemed undesirable.
Indiana was first to pass sterilization laws in 1907, and was quickly followed by 28 more states. That’s right, by 1931 over half the states in the Union had sterilized over 64,000 people. At first, these were people with disabilities or inherited diseases, but it was soon expanded to allow sterilizing people for simply being poor.
These sterilization programs found legal support in the Supreme Court. In Buck v. Bell (1927), the state of Virginia sought to sterilize Carrie Buck for promiscuity as evidenced by her giving birth to a baby out of wedlock (some suggest she was raped). In ruling against Buck, Supreme Court Justice Wendell Holmes opined, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind….Three generations of imbeciles is enough”. This decision legitimized the various sterilization laws in the United States. In particular, California’s program was so robust that the Nazi’s turned to California for advice in perfecting their own efforts. Hitler proudly admitted to following the laws of several American states that allowed for the prevention of reproduction of the “unfit”.
Nor was Justice Holmes the only famous supporter of this movement. Theodore Roosevelt, Sir Winston Churchill, physicist Linus Pauling, economist John Maynard Keynes, Woodrow Wilson, Clarence Darrow, and even Helen Keller were among its advocates.
With World War 2 and the rise of Nazi Germany and death camps, most of the world turned away from eugenics. But was it ever really forgotten by the elites in America? Could they have been biding their time, and now seizing an opportunity to put some of the practices in place? Is that why the emphasis is on “access” to health care, not making it affordable for everyone?
I wonder. When I look at policies that seem designed to punish and shorten the lives of the sick, poor, elderly, and minorities, I can’t help but think the Theory of Eugenics is alive and well, and at work in Washington DC today.