American Experience “The Eugenics Crusade,” a Cautionary Tale about the Quest for Human Perfection

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14 October 2018
The Eugenics Crusade
Courtesy of American Philosophical Society, American Eugenics Society Records
"The Eugenics Crusade"
Premieres Tuesday, October 16 from 9 to 11 PM ET on PBS
(Check your local listings)
          The Eugenics Crusade tells the story of the unlikely –– and largely unknown –– project to breed a better American race, tracing the rise of a movement that turned a scientific theory of heredity into a powerful instrument of social control. Populated by figures both celebrated and obscure, it is an often revelatory portrait of an America at once strange and eerily familiar. Written and directed by Michelle Ferrari, produced by Ferrari, Rafael de la Uz and Connie Honeycutt, and executive produced by Mark Samels,
        The word “eugenics” tends to conjure gruesome images of Nazi concentration camps and the millions of casualties from Hitler’s ruthless campaign for racial purity. What may come as a surprise to many is that a similar effort to breed a “better” human race flourished in the United States in the decades prior to World War II –– and that the manifestos written by the American movement's proponents and the policy victories they achieved were a direct inspiration to the Führer.

         Perhaps more surprising still, American eugenics was neither the work of fanatics, nor the product of fringe science. The goal of the movement was simple and, to its disciples, laudable: to eradicate social ills by limiting the number of those considered to be genetically “unfit” –– a group that would expand to include many immigrant groups, the poor, Jews, the mentally and physically disabled, and the “morally delinquent.” At its peak in the 1920s, the movement was in every way mainstream, packaged as a progressive quest for “healthy babies.” Its doctrines were not only popular and practiced, but codified by laws that severely restricted immigration and ultimately led to the institutionalization and sterilization of tens of thousands of American citizens.
          Although the craze was fleeting, the laws passed in the name of eugenics and the impulse that inspired them proved far more durable, lingering on in American life well after the movement's scientific foundations were discredited by geneticists themselves, and even after the Nazis would link eugenics inextricably to genocide. Charting the movement's rise and fall, as well as its legacy, The Eugenics Crusade explores the dangers inherent in the pursuit of human perfectibility.
          "This film tells a story that’s incredibly timely,” said Samels. “The eugenics crusade of the early 20th century foreshadows so many of the issues facing us now, rising as it did from fears about demographic changes brought on by immigration, coupled with scientific advances in our understanding of genetics and heredity that led some to question what types of people were worth saving or helping.  We see these debates now with advances in genetic manipulation and 'designer babies.'  It's a cautionary tale about how an idea that seems to begin with so much reason and justification can turn into a movement that blinds people to its consequences. It's almost Orwellian in that it shows how we can slowly begin to accept a mindset that, looking at it in the rearview mirror, is shocking and shameful."

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