Echoes of eugenics movement in stem cell debate

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Historians are drawing some intriguing connections between the contemporary debate over human embryonic stem cell research and California's unsavory, and mostly forgotten, eugenics movement of the last century.

Until Adolf Hitler thoroughly discredited any notion of creating a "master race," some prominent figures in California were enamored with the idea. A key backer of the pseudoscience was Charles W. Goethe, a wealthy conservationist and benefactor of what would become California State University's Sacramento campus.

Goethe, who backed preserving redwood stands as a way to enhance California's natural environment, also wanted to apply animal breeding concepts to the betterment of humanity -- apparently to exclude most everyone who wasn't white and European.

An arboretum at the university was named for Goethe, who was born in 1875, until students and faculty learned more about his advocacy of border controls, mandatory sterilization of immigrants and "Nordic purity." Now, it's called "University Arboretum."

But sanitizing signs isn't the most effective way to come to grips with California's eugenics past, said Chloe Burke, a Cal State Sacramento historian and organizer of a daylong conference held Friday and billed as the first of its kind, called "From Eugenics to Designer Babies: Engineering the California Dream."

Burke said in an interview that the dark history of eugenics is worth more than a footnote. A look at the California eugenics movement, she said, adds some new dimensions to "today's excitement about stem cell research."

"Both are linked to a conviction that tampering with heredity or our genetic makeup can lead to solutions for a broad number of problems, both individual and social," she said.

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Bo Jacobs - 10/26/2005

Charles Goethe, a founding member of the Sierra Club and the Redwood Conservancy, was not an intellectual eugenicist as he appears in this short piece. For over twenty years he anonamously published "The Eugenics News" which was intensely racist and very low-brow. While he did think of human bredding in terms of animal husbandry, he would also say that there is not a worthwile gene in the entire Mexican genepool (the country he was born in) and often compared Mexican peasants to washing machines. If this is the kind of thought informing the stem-cell debate, we are all in trouble.