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Book Review: Preaching Eugenics - Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement

Christine Rosen

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Preaching Eugenics:Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
Michael Toth
Oxford University Press
296 pages

For early 20th-century American elites in the full flush of the Progressive movement, regulating reproduction through eugenics offered a promising solution to the multiplying social problems of the modern age. That man was an evolutionary being they had no doubt. But he had now progressed to the point where he could take charge of his own evolution, both political and biological, and replace the wasteful methods of natural selection with the efficient and ethical method of science. For the sake of the race's improvement, particularly the part of it in their own country, the eugenicists advocated a broad, high-minded program that included state-sponsored sterilization, immigration restriction, birth control, and restrictive marriage laws.

All this is in the history books, of course, even if carefully kept from full view. What Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, brings to the table in her well-researched and engaging study, Preaching Eugenics, is the eager participation of many religiously-minded Americans in the eugenics project. "During the first few decades of the twentieth century," she writes,

Eugenics flourished in the liberal Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish mainstream; clerics, rabbis, and lay leaders wrote books and articles about eugenics, joined eugenics organizations, and lobbied for eugenics legislation. They grafted elements of the eugenics message onto their own efforts to pursue religious-based charity in their churches and adopted eugenic solutions to the social problems that beset their communities. They explored the eugenic implications of the biblical Ten Commandments and investigated the hereditary lessons embedded in the parables of Jesus.

Preaching Eugenics includes a chapter on the Catholic Church's opposition to sterilization. American Catholic officials such as Msgr. John A. Ryan vociferously opposed eugenic sterilization, and Rome officially condemned the practice in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. Interestingly, the Church's position against sterilization relied upon more secular reasoning than did the practice's many religious supporters. In Casti Connubii, Pope Pius XI drew on natural-rights philosophy to link the right of bodily integrity with the limits of state power: "Public magistrates have no direct power over the bodies of their subjects, therefore, where no crime has taken place and there is no cause present for grave punishment, they can never directly harm, or tamper with the integrity of the body, either for the reasons of eugenics or for any other reason."

Read the entire article on the Claremont Insitute website (new window will open).

Posted: 25-Aug-05

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