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Social Darwinism, Eugenics, and Sterilization

As a way of explaining and justifying the increasing disparity between rich and poor in industrial societies, Herbert Spencer of Britain and William Graham Sumner of the U.S. theorized that Charles Darwin’s laws of natural selection, applied to humans – and that progress was a result of relentless competition for survival.  Spencer called it “survival of the fittest.”

Those who got rich from the rampant capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the “fit” – people who had adapted to their environment and therefore deserved their wealth.

The theory became known as social Darwinism and included the idea that helping the poor or otherwise disadvantaged – by putting any restrictions on businesses or their practices – was going against the laws of nature and was, therefore, dangerous. 

Eugenics – the belief that the type of “selective breeding” sometimes used with animals was appropriate to humans and that only the “best” people should reproduce – often accompanied social Darwinism.

Literally translating as “good creation”, the word Eugenics was coined by Francis Galton in 1883 in his “Inquiries into human faculty and its development”. Galton, setting a stage that led both to institutionalization and the Nazis, writes in that book: “The hereditary taint due to the primeval barbarism of our race, and maintained by later influences, will have to be bred out of it before our descendants can rise to the position of free members of an intelligent society”.

Alongside blaming heredity for causing intellectual disabilities, those with such disabilities were demonized and blamed for all the ills in our society – women of “feeble mind” were said to be promiscuous – and of course would “breed” more generations of “defectives” with their loose morals. Poverty was blamed on genetics, as was drunkenness and violent tendencies. 

The theories drove much of what happened at Pineland until the 1940s.

Clipping from an article from the Lewiston Evening Journal, August 4, 1917
Lewiston Evening Journal, August 4, 1917

By the early 1900’s, Eugenics had become a mainstream idea, supported by doctors and scientists of the day. In 1914, The Journal of the Maine Medical Association published an article entitled “Sterilization of the Unfit” by Henry M. Swift, MD, which argued that to reduce the number of “defectives” in society, and lessen the “public burden” such people present, “measures could be adopted to prevent propagation among these classes” – namely, involuntary sterilization.

From Dr. Swift’s article: 

Selection for "Sterilization of the Unfit" by Henry M. Swift, MD, published in the Journal of the Maine Medical Association, 1914
“Sterilization of the Unfit” by Henry M. Swift, MD, 1914

In order to keep the “feeble minded” from reproducing and passing their afflictions to subsequent generations, in 1917 the Maine Legislature made it illegal for them to marry as well.

Section of 1917 Public Laws of Maine, Chapter 40: An Act to Amend Section Two of Chapter Sixty-four of the Revised Statutes, Relating to Marriage of Feeble Minded Persons
1917 Public Laws of Maine, Chapter 40

Eugenics theories continued to gain traction across the country, and by the 1920s policies allowing involuntary sterilization had gained widespread approval.

The 2nd International Exhibition of Eugenics, 1921
Picture of a tree with the label “Eugenics”. Words to either side of the trunk read, “Eugenics is the self direction of human evolution”.
The 2nd International Exhibition of Eugenics, 1921

In Maine, superintendents of prisons and institutions and other members of the public began to call for a law and public policy on the sterilization of the “feeble minded”.

Clipping from the Lewiston Evening Journal, August 29, 1922 with the headline: "What Eugenics Can Do"
Lewiston Evening Journal, August 29, 1922
Clipping from the Lewiston Evening Journal, August 11, 1923
Lewiston Evening Journal, August 11, 1923
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Values Check

Who and what do we value in our society? How do we determine someone’s “worth”, and whether they are deserving of help when they need it? Are all people really equal – and do we treat everyone as equally human?

People with developmental disabilities were sent to institutions because they were seen as useless or even dangerous to society. Their value in a place like Pineland rested on their potential for being trained to do menial labor – a Pineland resident could potentially get a furlough or even release from the institution if they could show that they could work.

In general, people with developmental disabilities throughout our history have been dismissed, patronized, and dehumanized. Doctors assumed that people with developmental disabilities didn’t feel pain, caretakers believed that they did not need friendships or hobbies or someone to communicate with, and society saw them as dangerous and unfit.

There were also people and moments in history that shifted our assumptions about the value of people with developmental disabilities – President Kennedy’s experience of loving his sister with disabilities led to huge policy shifts that impacted people with developmental disabilities across our country, and the brave self-advocates who organized a civil rights movement led directly to another president signing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The question must be posed, what is the value of all potential members of the community, with or without disability, to the very health and fiber of the community?