Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Students Spread Awareness of California’s Eugenic History

Support California high school students' effort to update curricula standards

California has a long and deeply troubling history of eugenics that includes the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of men and women. In 2003, the state Senate passed a resolution urging “every citizen of the state to become familiar with the history of the eugenics movement, in the hope that a more educated and tolerant populace will reject any similar abhorrent pseudoscientific movement should it arise in the future.”

Unfortunately, the resolution did not include concrete mechanisms for achieving this important goal, and most Californians still know little or nothing about their state’s eugenic legacies.

A group of California high school students has now started an online petition at Change.org to help turn the resolution’s aspiration into reality. The petition outlines specific and powerful recommendations for teaching the long-ignored history of eugenics in meaningful ways.

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The students want the California Board of Education to change the standards for U.S. history textbooks and the language of the California educational code so that curricula on sterilization and eugenics are introduced in public high schools. They offer specific recommendations for the curricula, which include thinking about why eugenics was considered a viable solution to societal problems, looking at different eras of sterilization in the state (including very recent occurrences), thinking about how the history is both intertwined with and separate from the eugenic practices of Nazi Germany, and thinking about the ongoing relevance of eugenics for genetic technology today.

In California as elsewhere in the United States, eugenic views and practices were maintained by respected medical practitioners in the name of morality and science. The students recognize that this framework is particularly dangerous because of its power to affect opinion and justify institutionalized discrimination; they also recognize that this thinking is not limited to the past. They quote State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who was forthright about the matter in an official 2003 letter acknowledging California’s eugenic history.

“At the Dawn of an era when cloning and genetic engineering offer both great promise and great peril, we must learn from our history, teach our children about our past and be mindful of our future.”

The students’ effort to change the state’s official history curricula and textbooks may seem daunting, but the passage in 2011 of California’s FAIR (Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, Respectful) Education Act – which mandates the inclusion of contributions of people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in social studies curricula and textbooks – has set an important precedent. The FAIR Education Act demonstrates that what kids are taught can be changed to more closely reflect the truth, and the effort to spread awareness about eugenics can follow a similar model. California public high schools should be required to use U.S. history textbooks that don’t ignore these issues.

Eugenics is unfortunately not merely a concern for the history books. Shockingly, forced sterilizations have occurred in very recent years in some California prisons. And potential misuses of new genetic and reproductive technologies raise concerns about a “new eugenics.” Learning from the mistakes of the past, and acknowledging the harm they are causing in the present, is the best way to avoid repeating injustices down the road.

Now seems to be a ripe moment for addressing the legacies of eugenics in the U.S. There are several ongoing efforts to offer compensation to victims of forced sterilizations around the country, including the recent bills in Virginia and North Carolina. In California however, where none of the estimated 20,000 victims of state-sponsored sterilization are still alive, educational reform could be the most effective way to address these past wrongs.

Californians deserve to know the truth about their state’s – and their country’s – role in the history of eugenics. The victims of forced sterilization deserve to have their story told. This is a critical moment to learn about the complexities and possibilities of justice, equality, and human rights.

The student petition is one of the most uplifting and creative ways to grapple with this painful history that I have seen. Please consider helping these students’ effort and sign the petition today.

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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