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Eugenics, its legacy in the US and presence in higher education

Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, John Harvey Kellogg.

All renowned, distinguished historical figures from various different fields and walks of life. All sharing one thing in common: being proud supporters of the Eugenics Movement.

Eugenics is the election of desired heritable characteristics in order to improve future generations, typically in reference to humans. Believers of eugenics sought to improve the human population and its gene pool by encouraging “fit and desirable” individuals to reproduce while discouraging or preventing the “unfit” individuals from procreating. This was intended to breed out “undesirable” traits from the general population. The ideology gained popularity in mainstream US media around the 1900s, but its reputation declined after the Holocaust, and the field was discredited.

Eugenics has been (and still is) questioned, particularly because the traits deemed “desirable” favor and align with white, able-bodied, and financially stable people. This led to the ideology being used to perpetuate the well-being and superiority of pre-established “desirable” people, while simultaneously further marginalizing those who weren’t classified as “desirable” - struggling, minority communities. This explains the eugenics movement’s historical presence and popularity in the US. Racism and xenophobia were and continue to be extremely prevalent, making eugenics the perfect vessel to justify horrific acts and pass policies that targeted and persistently harm people of color and their reproductive rights.

In present-day consciousness, eugenics is a condemned, castigated concept, as it has historically been used to justify horrible acts of violence and discrimination against people. Eugenics was employed by both Hitler’s Nazi Germany to condone the murder of 6 million Jewish people, as well as US authorities to forcibly sterilize more than 60,000 people mostly before the 1960s. These operations were carried out under the eugenics laws of the time, primarily on so-called “mentally ill” or “mentally deficient” individuals, especially people of color. These laws were in place because US policymakers used mental illness or illness as a justification to pass racist eugenic policies and undertake the subsequent procedures.

This is why, when UC Berkeley bioethics professor Osagie K. Obasogie opened a campus email promoting the Genealogic Eugenic Institute Fund in 2018, he was stunned. The email articulated the Institute’s support for research and education in eugenics, revealing how the $2.4-million eugenics fund had been ongoing and active in UC Berkeley. It contained an offer of an annual payout of around $70,00 in the 2020 fiscal year to support research and education on policies, practices, and technologies that could “affect the distribution of traits in the human race.” This included those related to family planning, infertility, assisted reproduction technologies, prenatal screening, abortion, gene editing, and gene modification. The email went on to elaborate on the “modern definition of eugenics” which included “perspectives that shed light on not only the benefits but also the limitations and the ethics of these alternative approaches to improving the human race.”

When asked about the situation, Obasogie said to the L.A. Times, “I was shocked and dismayed.” In another interview with Berkeley News, he stated, “Eugenics is not simply something that happened several decades ago, but is with us to this very day.” He and a small group of faculty members from UC Berkeley raised their concerns with the writer of the email, a former senior administrator.

This prompted the school to freeze the fund and launch an investigation, which discovered the funds came from a private trust in 1960 established “for the primary purpose of improvement of the human race through research and education in the field of eugenics.” The trust was transferred to the University of California Board of Regents in 1975 with the same purpose. The specifics aren’t clear, but at some point, the funds were allocated to UC Berkeley and then given to their School of Public Health.

On October 26, 2020, the School of Public Health Dean Michael C. Lu divulged the existence of the fund to the entire school faculty by letter. Lu has urged for feedback on renaming and repurposing the fund, along with possible actions such as a public apology and a public education project on eugenics across UC campuses. In the letter, Lu stated, “By accepting and using these funds over the past four decades, we must acknowledge that Berkeley Public Health has been a part of this horrific legacy of eugenics that has caused great harm in medicine and public health, from forced sterilizations to genocides … The school is committed to acknowledging our complicity, apologizing for our past sins and taking action to make things right, by renaming and repurposing the fund toward expressly anti-eugenics purposes.”

Although the presence of eugenics isn’t unique to UC Berkeley, colleges and universities across the nation have links to eugenics, and some have only recently started efforts to remove these connections.