The eugenics movement arose in the 20th century as two wings of a common philosophy of human worth. Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883, perceived it as a moral philosophy to improve humanity by encouraging the ablest and healthiest people to have more children. The Galtonian ideal of eugenics is usually termed positive eugenics. Negative eugenics, on the other hand, advocated culling the least able from the breeding population to preserve humanity’s fitness. The eugenics movements in the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia favored the negative approach.
The notion of segregating people considered unfit to reproduce dates back to antiquity. For example, the Old Testament describes the Amalekites – a supposedly depraved group that God condemned to death. Concerns about environmental influences that might damage heredity – leading to ill health, early death, insanity, and defective offspring – were formalized in the early 1700s as degeneracy theory. Degeneracy theory maintained a strong scientific following until late in the 19th century. Masturbation, then called onanism, was presented in medical schools as the first biological theory of the cause of degeneracy. Fear of degeneracy through masturbation led Harry Clay Sharp, a prison physician in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to carry out vasectomies on prisoners beginning in 1899. The advocacy of Sharp and his medical colleagues, culminated in an Indiana law mandating compulsory sterilization of “degenerates.” Enacted in 1907, this was the first eugenic sterilization law in the United States.
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