Education And Debate

Eugenics and human rights

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 14 August 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:435
  1. Daniel J Kevles, professor (
  1. Division of Humanities, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA
  • Accepted 1 July 1999

During the Nazi era in Germany, eugenics prompted the sterilisation of several hundred thousand people then helped lead to antisemitic programmes of euthanasia and ultimately, of course, to the death camps. The association of eugenics with the Nazis is so strong that many people were surprised at the news several years ago that Sweden had sterilised around 60 000 people (mostly women) between the 1930s and 1970s. The intention was to reduce the number of children born with genetic diseases and disorders. After the turn of the century, eugenics movements—including demands for sterilisation of people considered unfit—had, in fact, blossomed in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Scandinavia, not to mention elsewhere in Europe and in parts of Latin America and Asia. Eugenics was not therefore unique to the Nazis. It could, and did, happen everywhere.

Summary points

Although eugenics programmes are usually associated with Nazi Germany, they could, and did, happen everywhere

They focused on manipulating heredity or breeding to produce better people and on eliminating those considered biologically inferior

In the 1920s and 1930s eugenic sterilisation laws were passed in 24 of the American states, in Canada, and in Sweden

Eugenics was criticised increasingly between the wars and was attacked widely when its role in the holocaust was revealed

Many people believed that individual human rights mattered far more than those sanctioned by science, law, and social needs

Origins of eugenics

Modern eugenics was rooted in the social darwinism of the late 19th century, with all its metaphors of fitness, competition, and rationalisations of inequality. Indeed, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and an accomplished scientist in his own right, coined the word eugenics Galton promoted the ideal of improving the human race by getting rid of the “undesirables” and multiplying the “desirables.” Eugenics began to flourish after the rediscovery, in 1900, …

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