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News and Commentary

1 February 2012

The Right to be Well Born

Franklin B. Kirkbride

Editor's Note: What follows is an article published in The Survey, a magazine from New York, in 1912. It is unsophisticated for today's standards and the terminology is outmoded (Kirkbride refers to the mentally handicapped as 'cretins'), but the progressive tone is typical of the era and the American eugenics movement in general. More than architects of a 'master race', as they are nowadays portrayed by media producers and commentators, eugenicists saw themselves as progressive utopians working for the benefit of mankind, their primary aims being the elimination of disease, deformity, crime, and mental handicap and the improvement of life-chances for the individual. In this sense they were, not unlike modern egalitarians, world improvers, who believed in the use of quantitative methods for the betterment of society.

A group of public-spirited people were lately discussing feeble-mindedness and the causes of a certain prevailing reluctance to face the issue squarely. "The trouble with the problem of the feeble-minded," said Joseph H. Choate, "is that there are so many of us."

Perhaps there may be even more of "us" than Mr. Choate suspects! For this is not a question of one generation, but of our children and our children's children. It took philanthropy a long time to emerge from the merely "relief" stage. Slowly we are taking the next step. Our "comprehensive plan" concerns itself with more than the individual life—we have begun to care for posterity, no matter how little posterity may have done for us. With this outlook even statistics of degeneracy become less depressing, for we recognize in them the basis of relief, prevention, and constructive effort.

A study of either town or country shows the dwarfed intellect, the perverted instinct, the weakened body, and the preventible[sic] disease in every community. In some places they have run riot to the almost entire extinction of the finer and higher types. The pyromaniac continues to amuse himself by destroying property and life; insidiously, but no less surely, the union of defective and degenerate parents is destroying the vitality of whole communities. But we as a people are awakening to a better realization of the fact that from the standpoint of the taxpayer, if from no other, it is good business policy to seek out the causes of human waste and stem the tide of degeneracy.

Of all our natural resources, the conservation of human life is surely the most important. It is beyond dispute that our social fabric needs improving, society, as it exists today, being its own index-finger pointing to the fact. The hopeful sign of the times is that here, as everywhere, the need implies the means. The child of an imbecile girl and of . . . , a genius almost, who had . . . hospitality and wronged an innocent victim, grew to young womanhood believing that she was the daughter of an aunt. She was beautiful and talented, and one day told of her engagement. The aunt struggled between duty and desire. Whichever way she looked, tragedy faced her. To tell the truth or to keep silent; to bring sorrow to two lives or to let anguish come through the perpetuation of a tainted strain which by an inexorable law two normal beings were powerless to avoid!

Parentage, says H.G. Wells,

is altogether too much a matter of private adventure, and the individual family is altogether too irresponsible. As a consequence there is a huge amount of avoidable privation, suffering, and sorrow, and a large proportion of the generation that grows up grows up stunted, limited, badly educated, and incompetent in comparison with strength, training, and beauty with which a better social organization could endow it.[1]

And he goes on to show our ways of begetting and rearing children, of permitting diseases to engender and spread, are chaotic, entailing enormous hardship and waste. "And while the scientific man seeks to make an orderly map of the half-explored wilderness of fact," we must also seek "to make an orderly plan for the half-conceived wilderness of human effort."

That this is not an isolated viewpoint is shown by the following statement:

Every society ought doubtless so to organize itself as to favor the survival of its strongest, most efficient, and most valuable members. But in fact, nearly all societies are actually so organized as not only to permit the physically and mentally defective to leave descendants, but even to favor their survival at the expense of those more richly endowed. There has thus arisen in all civilized societies, in various ways and for various reasons, a process of selection of the less fit, which is a grave and growing danger to the future of the human race. Not only has the natural elimination of the inferior stocks been checked, but most societies permit and promote the elimination of the superior.[2]

It has been well said that our public institutions for the insane, the criminal, and the defective are but monuments to our own folly. Yet, until the source of the trouble is to be eliminated, we must continue to build them in order to make provision for all who ought to be within their walls. That it pays better to provide permanent care for a feeble-minded boy or girl during the entire reproductive period than to support their offspring admits of no argument. And each year's delay in their permanent segregation means added expense, added difficulties, added misery. The cost of caring for the bodily, the mentally, and the morally sick is trifling when considered as insurance, as protection, as prevention, but the cost of unchecked disease and crime is incalculable.

The cretins, who formerly abounded in Aosta in northern Italy, were segregated in 1890, and by 1910 only a single cretin of sixty years and three demi-cretins remained in the community.[3]

In education we have potent forces for the uplift of the race. "The child that should never have been born" cannot be put out of existence, but can be developed and trained. His presence should be detected early, and he must be protected always, for, although many can be made self-supporting, few, as Dr. Fernald tells us, can become self-controlling. The years of greatest receptivity of the normal as well as of the defective child are the early years. And the mind of every child, whether sub-normal, normal, or super-normal, should be trained to the fullest extent possible, so that he may reach the higher development of which he is capable.

The part the state and nation can take in conserving health and improving human strains is as yet hardly realized. The first step is to secure the facts, vital statistics being the necessary foundations. The reports and registration of births, communicable disease, and deaths are in many parts of the country more honored in the breach than in the observance. Yellow fever, plague, and small-pox rouse to instant effort, but the far more insidious ravages of less dreaded maladies go on unchecked. The prevention of disease is a duty which every community should discharge; the treatment of the malady may properly be a personal affair. Sanitation, pure food, pure drugs, and pure products of every kind can only be secured by the exercise of a police power delegated by the community to local, state, and national government. Uniform marriage laws, intelligently enforced, can be of great value. Here Indiana has led the way.

It is axiomatic that, to be effective, law must follow public opinion, not precede it, And although radical changes in the social order might be prescribed with every indication of success, their practical applications would probably result in a revulsion of popular feeling and the defeat of the very ends sought to be accomplished. Thus common sense counsels constructive measures, easily understood, generally approved, and promptly productive of practical results.

But there is a step beyond prevention. The work of Burbank with plants, of the American Breeders' Association with live stock, have shown what constructive effort can do. Fortunately we are also awakening to the need of perpetuating normal and healthy human strains. More than this, we are recognizing the possibility of further improving these strains. In an investigation of 2,000 children in the general population Goddard found 80 (4 per cent) super-normal. To neglect the development of these children and doom them to the training suited to a mediocre mind is as great a folly as to permit the laggard to retard the advancement of the normal child.

There is a wide and hopeful field in the laboratory; for the study of eugenics, of heredity, of pathological conditions, and of biological chemistry is opening new vistas and enormous possibilities.

The right to be well-born has been denied to many. Society can redeem this injustice only in part, and for that reason the very best that intelligence and science can give is imperative. To the large and more fortunate majority who have been well-born, education and a higher social conscience must teach race improvement.


[1] New Worlds for Old, page 52.

[2] Announcement of the First International Eugenic Congress, London, 1912.

[3] Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, Davenport, page 259.

Source: The Survey XXVII (12 March 1912) 1838-1839.

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