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In late 1942, some thought the Sterilization League of New Jersey should give up the cause. It had never accomplished much, and far more organized groups such as the Eugenics Records Office in Long Island and the Human Betterment Foundation in California had already ceased operations.
The group met at the luxurious Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, overlooking the Passaic River. The lobby had "huge columns combined with intricate lighting features over a white marble steps, tile floors, and lavish rugs. There were large palms and potted plants, and writing desks and tables on a balcony for afternoon tea," a history of the hotel reads.
The directors considered several options, including going into limbo for the duration of the war or becoming a national organization. But there were benefits to being the last champions of a seemingly lost cause. Perhaps with nowhere else left to turn, key leaders of America's prewar eugenics movement pledged support, including Harvard anthropologist Earnest Hooton, and California eugenicists Paul Popenoe and C.M. Goethe.
The little group voted for the national option by a 24-1 vote, and among its members were some of the most notorious early supporters of eugenics. Hooton had worked on the "Committee of the Negro" during the 1920s as part of an effort to prove that the black race was inferior, and Goethe had openly praised Nazi eugenics programs.
They had a plan, but not much money. Then Dr. Clarence Gamble stepped in, bringing great wealth and the absolute certainty he was right. Gamble funded the new group (now renamed Birthright) and soon convinced his brother Cecil to make an even bigger donation. In December 1943, the Gamble Family Trust sent a $10,000 check (equivalent to $125,000 in 2011 dollars), and a follow-up letter stressed, "Do not make any mention of the conditions of the gift." A Procter & Gamble spokesperson noted that "Cecil Gamble was on the Board and gave personal money to a wide variety of different causes. These were personal decisions and in no way reflected the opinion of The Procter & Gamble Company."
The pattern of secrecy was repeated many times over the years, part of careful plans to control the identity of prominent donors and the nature of the campaign.
To avoid alerting opponents of eugenics, Birthright collected figures on the number of Roman Catholics in each state. In New Hampshire, sympathizers wanted Birthright information mailed to them in plain envelopes.
Some had tried to raise alarms. A New York Times science editor sent a devastating critique of eugenics to Birthright in 1940, concluding that "the more I go into this subject the more doubts I have." But Birthright pushed ahead, thinking they could avoid mistakes of the past by merging two opposing goals. A draft memo from 1945 suggested helping "the worst type in every social class" to die out—yet not discriminate. It was an impossible balancing act, but it took 20 years for the group to finally accept that.
"It is important to keep clearly in mind that a sound sterilization program makes no social distinctions. It is designed to check the reproduction of defectives wherever they may be found, in institutions or at large, in the richest family or the poorest family, without regard to color, race, or religion.
Immediate steps which are needed include: Accumulation in every municipality, county and state of detailed family histories. Only by means of such continuous records can human evolution be intelligently and effectively directed.
The best in every social class should be encouraged to increase, the worst type in every social class should be helped to die out. To know that we are able to guide and quicken evolutionary progress is a momentous and inspiring discovery."
Lombardo says it's important to remember that for much of America's history, eugenics wasn't a dirty word. "This is not something that happened because a few people were in favor of it. It's because a lot of people were in favor of it or at least acquiesced in it."
Like Gamble, most of Birthright's founders did good things, too. Goethe built public playgrounds for children in California and was a major supporter of the Sierra Club in its early years; Popenoe virtually created the practice of marriage counseling in America and wrote the hugely popular Ladies Home Journal column "Can This Marriage Be Saved?"
In hindsight the thought that a nonprofit group could promote both voluntary and involuntary sterilization seems absurd, yet the membership showed an admirable balance. If the concern was social justice, one of their members was Eduard C. Lindeman, a professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work. He was also chair of the American Civil Liberties Union Commission on Academic Freedom in 1949. If the concern was racial bias, there was the Rev. Guy Emery Shipler of New York, an early supporter of the NAACP. And for those worried about gender bias, Gamble's partner on the Field Committee was Dr. Robert L. Dickinson, considered by many to be America's first medical advocate for women's sexuality.
But what Birthright's members never seemed to understand was that the careful balancing act fell apart once it moved out into a world filled with racial, gender and disability bias. On paper everything was scientific; in reality there were jagged edges that would hurt people.
Unable to launch a new wave of eugenic sterilization in their home states, Birthright's leaders used the south, midwest and west as testing grounds, hoping to create a model for the entire nation. Iowa and North Carolina were chosen for the first intensive campaigns, and fieldworkers met with doctors, social workers and public officials to lay the groundwork for expanded sterilization of "the unfit."
In 1945 a fieldworker reported that an Iowa State Psychologist ordered the sterilization of two girls at a training school even though their IQs were in the 80s—far above even the then-current crude definition for the mentally handicapped. "This has never happened before in Iowa, and I now hope a precedent has been established, that it will continue, and many of these girls can be included," she wrote.
Victims of the program felt differently. In North Carolina records from the Eugenics Board show an entire family traveled to Raleigh to protest the operation in 1945, to no avail.
"Sally has never been a filthy girl," Sally's mother said. "She has just been overworked more than anything else."
"Suppose the girl was to marry and have children, do you believe she could care for them?" asked board member Dr. R.T. Stimpson. "I do," her mother replied. "She is the best child I have got, and let me tell you, a mother that has raised a large family don't want their children sterile, because I know she don't need it."
"We are looking after the welfare of the patient and the public, too," Dr. F.L. Whelpley of the State Hospital in Goldsboro added. "If Sally had children, two or three might have to go to institutions."
"I don't see why she needs no sterilizing," her cousin said. "She stays at home and works all the time. Sent her over here (the hospital) because she worked too hard."
"I never knew hard work made people nervous," Stimpson said. "You just never done any," the cousin replied. "Try it and see."
"What does the patient have to say?" Stimpson asked. "I don't want it. I don't approve of it, sir," Sally said.
"If there is anything else you want to say, feel free to speak," said Clifford Beckwith, who was representing the attorney general's office. "I hope you will see how she is needed at home," the father replied. "We feel this is the best way to go about it," Beckwith said.
"I object to it," Sally's father said. "I need her at home to help save the garden. Got an acre in tomatoes and such stuff."
"We believe this is the quickest and surest and only way to get her back where she will be satisfied," Beckwith said. "She could go ahead and get married and be happy just as much as any other person and not have children."
"I don't want a sterilize operation," Sally said. I think I am getting along just fine. I help them over there. Treat them nice. I don't approve of it. Give me a trial. Let me go home, see if I get along all right."
"Is there anything further to say?" Beckwith asked. "If you would stop this and let me go home," Sally said. "Have mercy on me and let me do that." "If there is nothing more you wish to say we will send you a notice of the Board's decision," another Board member said. "She has never been a filthy girl," the father said. "No suggestion of that was made," Beckwith replied. "What is decided will be our best judgment."
But Birthright pushed ahead and began to print thousands of copies of pro-eugenics literature, much of it modeled after what had been done in California before the war. From 1945 to 1946 professors and staff at scores of institutions around the country sent requests to Birthright's Princeton offices for "educational" material about sterilization. Among them were Cornell, New York University, Vassar, Ohio State University, Stanford University and Dartmouth.
In California, the daughter of a prominent eugenicist mailed out eugenics material in California Institute of Technology envelopes. With that kind of broad support, the revived eugenics program grew dramatically in the next few years, and started to yield what Gamble considered to be promising results: a surge in sterilizations around the country and new interest from scientists.
The 2002 Winston-Salem Journal series Against Their Will prompted an apology from North Carolina's governor and much soul-searching. But new research shows how much of the postwar expansion there was planned in New Jersey, New York and Boston. The testing of schoolchildren in Orange County and Winston-Salem was related to similar attempts in Iowa and Baltimore to identify large numbers of children for future sterilization. The Iowa State Department of Public Instruction conducted a survey of all handicapped children, and Birthright planned "intensive work in the county which appears most promising."
In North Carolina, help came from all over the state. Robert Madry, head of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill News Service, used his position to send out eugenics news releases.
But no matter how inviting the public facade, the founders left no doubt that ultimately they were promoting involuntary sterilization. On May 7, 1945, as Germany lay in ruins and the war in Europe was ending, Goethe sent an airmail letter to Gamble. There was no mention of the Nazi defeat or a recognition that eugenics was flawed. His only regret was listening to friends who had urged him away from involuntary sterilization.
"Then came the New Jersey organization, now rechristened 'Birthright.' Here seemed an opportunity to help a group that were willing to concentrate on negative eugenics while I was throwing all my strength along the lines of strategy advised by a number of wise men. I felt easier in my conscience that the New Jersey organization had appeared on the scene and am whole-heartedly supporting it."
The improbable crusade was quickly becoming a reality. A field worker began one-on-one contacts nationwide, and the network of supporters grew. Goethe paid for a new publicity campaign, and by the summer of 1945 there was a steady stream of encouraging reports. A fieldworker wrote from Minnesota that "The attitude of many of those people is so fine and realistic, that I am sure we have struck GOLD! It is a great thrill to find people who are so whole-heartedly in favor, and who welcome help from a national organization, such as Birthright, with real enthusiasm. I hope for great things from Minnesota!"
Birthright promoted positive eugenics, too – identifying and seeking to reward gifted people, be they black or white. Gamble tried to convince Harvard, Princeton and other schools to start a fund to promote a higher birthrate among graduates. They dismissed the idea, but in early 1946 leaders of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America applauded a plan to encourage members of the clergy to have more children. "I have talked with Dr. Cavert about your generous and forward looking proposal. He is quite enthusiastic about it and believes that we can work out some arrangement which will be exceedingly favorable as a bit of social experimentation and aid to all concerned," wrote a member of the church group.
Birthright's members continued to ignore even the most accurate criticism from knowledgeable critics. Just as the prewar eugenics movement had, the group produced charts and press releases suggesting that the "feeble-minded" were reproducing at an extravagant rate, one that would soon overwhelm society with its costs. But a Princeton University expert in population studies responded that one of the charts was "indefensible" and "would be laughed out of court in any group which gave thought to its real meaning. I think, moreover, it is fundamentally a gross misrepresentation of the actual fact."
And Birthright's leaders were even blind to the damning evidence of Nazi abuses. They complained to Sheldon Gluek, a Harvard Law School Professor and expert on war crimes, about "the myth that sterilization was one of the Nazi atrocity measures." Gluek responded with exasperation that he "quoted from official sources verbatim." Gamble wrote in a memo that, "It has often been alleged that Germany's active use of sterilization of the insane and mentally defective was for racial discrimination or elimination. Careful questioning of those who have escaped from Hitlerian control, however, has failed to confirm this."
As work progressed in North Carolina, Gamble suggested they "please be careful not to mention this to ANYONE outside of the Executive committee. In the initial stages it's better not to let out the news of a new project, especially if, as in this case, it's governmental."
But soon the time for keeping quiet was over. Birthright hired a New York City advertising firm to design new eugenics pamphlets, and a publicist there to pitch stories to national publications. The sterilization campaign was destined to grow in the 1950s, reaching out to thousands of social workers and slowly moving toward the mainstream. Before it was over, Birthright was corresponding with a young senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy, who almost certainly knew nothing of their past. And before too long, despite the founders' hopes for an unbiased program, minority women and men all over the country would be targeted.