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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: Sara Kohgadai

“Survival of the fittest” was an evolutionary idea when Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of Species in the mid 1800s. More commonly referred to as “natural selection,” the idea is nature favored those who were most fit to survive the conditions of their environment. The strong would survive; the weak would die.

Don’t be bored! Come back! I promise this is interesting!

So, this process, this “natural selection,” is something that nature would take care of. If you’re a bird who is too skinny to survive the winter, you die. If you’re a bird who is too fat to fly, you die. What are left are the birds that are fat enough to survive winter, but thin enough to fly to get food – a stronger species. Darwin in a nutshell, I suppose.

Fast forward to the early 1900s, before World War II. In Lynchburg, Va. (kind of a redundant name, I’m sure), a hospital named Lynchburg State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded was opened in 1910. Not only were the feeble-minded and epileptics sent there, but the poor… and the tired… and the hungry…

But seriously, anyone who even just seemed or looked stupid could be sent to this hospital. And there, they were sterilized. Refer back to the “survival of the fittest.” The head honchos thought that by institutionalizing these unfit people, and then sterilizing them, they could prevent future generations of stupid babies from growing up and having to be institutionalized. The goal was to prevent “race degeneration.”

A seven-month-old was examined by a social worker and told the court, “There is a look about it that is not quite normal, but just what it is, I can’t tell.” And it was off with her uterus. No kidding.

They were kind of jumping in and playing nature – killing off the weak. By 1935, about 20,000 people in the United States were sterilized, according to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. And more than half at the point were sterilized in our beloved California.

A man named Harry Laughlin, a strong proponent of Eugenics, was doing research on why most states were not taking advantage of this great way to solve America’s impurity problem. He said the problem was the laws were either not constitutionally focused, or too poorly written for anyone to implement them. So, Laughlin goes and writes “Model Eugenical Sterilization Law.” This apparently remedied the previous two problems, because in 1927 the United States Supreme Court found the law constitutional.

That seven-month-old I mentioned earlier? She was the deciding factor in that case. Look up Buck v. Bell for all the juicy gossip.

But what a slippery slope! Get ready for a shiver down your spine. In 1936, Laughlin received an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg (that’s in Germany) for his work on “science of racial cleansing.” Once controlled by Hitler’s government, Heidelberg had announced that it had removed all the Jews and began promoting “Aryan physics.”

The Nazis took this sterilization idea and ran with it. They started sterilizing people in asylums, then warning people about how the health of the nation was being threatened by people with hereditary illnesses. In 1939, Hitler approved “mercy deaths-euthanasia-of those the state deemed unworthy of life.”

The next step? Well, we all know about that: “Six million Jews were exterminated in the gas chambers of the concentration camps as well as millions of political prisoners, Gypsies, the handicapped, those too ill to work, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Afro-Europeans and Soviet and Polish prisoners-of-war,” according to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

Just a few years earlier, American geneticist Joseph DeJarnette was complaining, “The Germans are beating us at our own game!” Even after World War II, sterilization continued in America until the 1970s.

I don’t really have an argument for this column, but I wanted to share this piece of history that never really makes it into our books somehow. Because whether it be slavery, religious persecution or planting seeds for genocide, American history is no better than any other country’s history. Like Tupac says, “I see no changes, all I see are racist faces, misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.”

SARA KOHGADAI thought this was an interesting topic, and really appreciates classes that address issues like this. She can be reached at sbkohgadai@ucdavis.edu.


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